Bandits Amid The Festival [11.4]

Once again Murati Nakara found herself in a place that was becoming familiar: Euphrates and Tigris’ solar within the wing of Solarflare LLC’s headquarters. This time, her hosts had summoned her to a room which appeared to be a convertible court. There were a variety of balls, racquets and other sporting equipment on a rack in the wall, and there were slots on the floor and the walls to affix nets, baskets, goals, whatever was necessary. The floor had the same sort of digital projector plating that the walls of living quarters would have, but this was used to display the correct markings for whatever sport was being played. It was not a full-size court for any given sport, but it was more than large enough for recreation.

Murati was surprised by its very existence.

“You two didn’t strike me as the sports-playing type.” Murati said.

Immediately her hosts delivered their expected reactions:

“That’s so fucking rude! I keep extremely fit! Don’t lump me in with this nerd!”

“Can you defend yourself without abusing me? I exercise a bit too, you know.”

In the middle of the court, Tigris and Euphrates welcomed Murati inside.

“We’re not here to play ordinary games today. It’s time for your training, Murati.”

Euphrates lobbed an easy baseball pitch and Murati caught it in her hands.

She felt a string of anxiety plucked in her chest, rendering an arrhythmic little tune that caused her to shudder. It was these two, and it was this place, so clearly they were talking about psionics, and Murati had been hesitating to try so much as shaking an object lightly. She had caused nothing but disasters to herself and her environment every time she attempted to use psionics.

“I’m a bit worried about this. I’ve been having a lot of issues controlling my psionics.” Murati said.

“Both of us can recover very quickly from injury.” Euphrates said.

“That doesn’t help me. I could throw something too hard and hit myself.” Murati said.

“You heal up from injuries unnaturally quickly too.” Tigris said.

“It’s– It’s not unnaturally quickly.” Murati said. “My ribs were broken for–”

“Less than two weeks? Maybe even less than one?” Tigris said, with a little grin on her face.

Murati blinked. She felt like she didn’t know where to put her hands.

All her life she had recovered a bit quicker than others from injuries, but that wasn’t–

Her anxious train of thought was interrupted.

“Regardless, don’t be afraid.” Euphrates said. “We’ll keep things from getting out of hand.”

“Chuck it at me as hard as you can with psionics.” Tigris said. “I’ll demonstrate.”

Tigris clapped her hands together and took in a deep breath. She was concentrating.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Murati sighed.

It’s not just whether anyone could recover from her uncontrolled blows or how quickly. Murati did not want to hurt people she cared about with her psionics. It was like being taught how to shoot with live targets. Even with rubber bullets in the chamber, battering and bruising your comrades in front of you was not a good learning environment. It discouraged her from wanting to try it at all.

However, Euphrates and Tigris were not ordinary people.

She was not about to walk out and refuse when they were prompting her to take action.

Maybe she could trust them and see where it went– but she was still not enthused about it.

“Okay, here it goes.”

She reared back with the ball in her hands and made to throw it.

In her mind, she pulled the mental trigger that unloaded her psionics on the object.

Her eyes felt warm, and in an instant, the optics of her psionics covered her vision.

Auras appeared in front of her, emanating from Euphrates and Tigris.

Her own aura transferred from her arm into the ball she was throwing, tinging it green.

She felt like she had no control over that color specifically– it was just how it happened.

As soon as the ball left her hands, she pushed on it with her mind. She concentrated on her desire for the ball to snap in Tigris’ direction as strongly as it could. And snap, it did. It felt like there was a barely perceptible instant where the ball transitioned from moving under the power of Murati’s ordinary throw, the energy of her arm muscles on the ball’s mass; to moving under the power of Murati’s mind, violently accelerating the ball perhaps five times as fast as she could ever hope to throw it.

It would strike Tigris, across the court, before Murati’s arm was done moving–

Oracle’s Voice. Saint’s Skin.

Ball struck hand with a soft thump despite all the brutal energy behind it.

“There, wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Murati blinked, and Tigris was holding the ball in her hand without a care.

“Are you still afraid of hitting me?” Tigris asked in a teasing tone of voice.

Murati was briefly speechless. She stammered. “I– I thought I– I heard you speaking–”

“You didn’t hear it. You felt what I was doing as I did it, but it would have all happened way too fast for you to hear it with your physical senses.” Tigris said. “As you get more used to it, your mental sense of psionic things happening around will alert you with greater fidelity. Can you describe it?”

There was no describing it. It was like a mix between a sound and a feeling.

“I don’t know. I thought I heard a voice.“ Murati said.

“Ah, a voice you say?“ Tigris looked like she understood more than she was letting on.

“Basically,” Euphrates added, “Tigris performed a psionic trick to predict your throw.”

“And to be able to catch it safely. That was what you felt.” Tigris finished.

“It’s actually really promising that you perceived what she was doing.” Euphrates said.

“Is it? I can’t really articulate what I heard– what I felt, as you say.” Murati replied.

Euphrates and Tigris both nodded their heads together.

“Even people who, baseline, know psionics exist and can see auras, can’t necessarily tell like you could that something was going on with me in that moment.” Tigris said. “That voice you think you heard, your psionic reckoning, is called the Oracle’s Voice– it’s a gift not many people have, even people who, like I said, can see auras and understand that psionics exists. But that’s totally not 101 stuff.”

It must not have been, because Murati had no idea what to make of it whatsoever.

Even in the recesses of her own mind. It was impossible to articulate again what that voice in her head had told her she had felt and experienced. It had already faded like a dream– or if she were to use Tigris’ own word, fidelity, then it was like barely hearing a message while tuning a communicator’s frequency but quickly losing it to the noise, never to be found again. Like almost everything about psionics, it felt so frustratingly vague and immaterial that she was not sure how to approach it and master it.

“Even if I could be a generational psionic talent or something– I’m not right now! I have no idea how to even begin to exert precise control over this!” Murati said, hands closing into fists.

She had raised her voice in frustration. Euphrates and Tigris remained as steady as ever.

“It all starts with having emotional control, Murati.” Euphrates said. “Psionics is the power of the mind, but, more than that, it’s really the power of human emotion. Your mind is a conduit that turns your intention into power, but that intentionality is ultimately steered by emotions. Control emotion and you will control your psionics. It will never be perfect, but it can be managed and directed.”

“We’re not going to leave you in the lurch. I’ll teach you how to get started.” Tigris said.

Murati tried to pull herself back to the center, dial down her anger and anxiety.

She took a deep breath. “If you have some baby’s first psionic exercises to share–”

“Eh, you’re past that stuff.” Tigris said. “You figured out how to ‘turn on’ your psionics without anyone telling you anything. You can flip it on and off when you want. That’s the first part; and being able to throw stuff on command too. You’re solidly in the intermediate range of psychics now.”

Murati had not thought that was anything special. It felt like a perquisite to any psionics.

Clearly, she had to find a way to turn off the auras or she would have gone insane.

So she developed that intentionality before the colors everywhere fried her brain.

How was that not ‘step 0’ to learning psionics? It felt so natural when she did it now.

“Okay.” Murati triggered her psionics, rendering the auras visible. “What now?”

She intended for Tigris and Euphrates to see the red around her eyes, deliberately.

“Now you have to start developing intentionality in other parts of the process.”

Tigris took the ball she had in hand, showed it to Murati, and threw it up in the air.

Up in the air, the ball suddenly veered to the left with a thud, as if something had stricken it from the side. This sent it flying quickly to the other western end of the court– where with another loud thud, the ball was struck again in mid-air and soared toward the eastern end of the court instead. Tigris was not even looking at it. Throughout the rest of their conversation that ball would continue to be struck from side to side in the court as if by an invisible bat, over and over without affecting Tigris at all.

“When you begin practicing with kinetics, it makes sense to think of the psionic force as coming from you, like it moves forward from your position.” Euphrates began. She had shifted into her very professor-like voice and demeanor. “You’ve been characterizing kinetics as thrusts that push something forward, bearing from your physical position. However, psionics is the power of your mind. It isn’t that limited.”

“For an object that is in your physical presence, you don’t actually need to be able to touch it physically in order to affect it. Hell, it doesn’t need to move in a direction that makes sense for the position of your body. I could stance up to pitch forward but have the ball go over my shoulder.” Tigris said. Murati looked at Euphrates, then at Tigris, and then up at the ball, which was still being batted around over their heads as Tigris spoke. “Your psionic force can come from any direction and from any position around you.”

Murati’s eyes drew wider. She kept trying to follow the ball.

Then, she focused on the impact, where the ball changed directions–

She thought she saw something– a strange, visible burst as if illustrating a collision–

“You’re a quick study.” Euphrates said. She smiled proudly. “You see it, Murati.”

“Can you explain what I’m seeing?” Murati asked, blinking rapidly in disbelief.

“We call them vectors to help visualize the phenomenon, but it’s not entirely correct to treat them like physical objects.” Euphrates said. “It’s just a helpful illustration of the actual fact: you can decide the direction and location where psionic force executes and takes effect on an object, as well as its strength. There are limits, for example, a human’s body will resist being vectored just as much as their mind resists other kinds of psionic intrusion. Vectoring from inside an object means the object’s entire internal structure will distribute the force more or less evenly– etcetera. For now, think of it like a bat you can summon to hit a ball in any direction you want. That’ll help you get started on using vectors.”

“Using them?” Murati said. “I can’t even begin to conceive of how this works.”

“Catch!” Tigris declared suddenly.

From the eastern side of the court, the ball was subjected to one final snap, and tumbled in the air toward Murati. That final strike had been much softer than those preceding and Murati found it easy to grab the ball out of the air once it neared her. She looked at the soft surface of the ball, which had started to look a little beat up from all the strikes it had received. She turned it over in her hands.

She got a very fleeting sensation, the feeling that this ball had been struck by Tigris.

It had her aura on it, faint traces of it, a similar texture– that was how she conceived it.

There was a trace of Tigris on it, of Tigris’ emotion, the signature of her psionic power.

“Here’s an exercise you can do.” Tigris said. “With your hand, throw the ball up, not hard, just enough to get it in the air. Then, bat it over your own head in the opposite direction to where you’re looking. Try to imagine you’re creating an object in front of yourself to strike the ball while it’s in the air.”

“It doesn’t matter the shape.” Euphrates said. “Just imagine something hitting the ball.”

Murati suppressed a desire to continue complaining. It wouldn’t help her.

She would just follow their instructions to the letter and see where it led her.

Holding the ball in one hand, palm up, she casually pitched it into the air.

Following it with her eyes, Murati pulled her trigger.

Imagining– something— striking the ball and launching it behind her–

There was an enormously loud bang, followed by a shower of shredded fibers and cork.

One instant, Murati had been staring at the ball, and the next– it was completely destroyed.

There was a dull aching on one side of her head, and she flinched from the sound.

Everyone present was left momentarily speechless as the debris collected on their heads.

“I’d never seen someone reach this extreme on their first try.” Tigris whined.

She batted fragments out of her hair while Euphrates softly brushed her own shoulders.

Then she suddenly picked up a fragment of the ball from Tigris’ hair and looked at it.

Murati could see debris had a faint trace of red aura on it. Euphrates must have seen it too.

“Murati– how do you conceptualize using your psionics?” Euphrates asked.

Tigris sighed openly and swatted Euphrates’ hand away as she tried to pick another ball fragment out of her ponytail without asking. “Don’t ask her that way, she’ll overthink things too much. Murati– take this completely at face value. Imagine you’re a star football player: name your signature kick right now.”

As instructed, Murati took it at face value. “The Nakara Cannon.” She replied easily.

Euphrates and Tigris both grimaced, staring at the fragments of the ball with worry.

Murati gestured with her hands, exasperated. “What do you want from me?” She cried.

“She’s normally such a sweet girl, but her heart is just full of violence.” Tigris mumbled.

“Murati, can you try hitting the next ball with less– repressed fury?” Euphrates smiled.

Murati closed her hands into fists and shut her eyes, sighing deeply.

Even her most pessimistic assumptions of the task of learning psionics now felt too kind.


Shalikova and Maryam sat on one of the beds in their room and Elena Lettiere sat on the other.

While her cuttlefish partner was smiling brighter than the sun and stars as depicted in books and movies– Shalikova herself had a dour and somewhat confused expression turned on Elena.

Despite everything else she had seen and experienced on her journey, this was still a scene that felt a little too storybook for the young ensign. She had never sat this close to anyone politically important, just peers and higher ranking officers. Not any politicians, not even local apparatchiks– there was a public safety corps officer, once upon a time when she was younger, but that hardly counted, they were just playing detective. In essence, she had never been near political power, and did not know how she felt about those figures generally– and there was the fact that this was a princess. Some part of her was fascinated by the improbability of meeting a princess. Having a princess sitting across from her– with bright indigo hair and pointed ears and such a vibrant and pretty face. Just like a cartoonish storybook.

Even though she had been briefed on the basics of Elena’s situation, she felt compelled–

“Uh. Forgive me for asking but– are you really a Princess?” Shalikova said.

Maryam eyed Shalikova for a moment, her skin and hair colors turning slightly duller.

It was an awkward question, but she felt she needed to hear it to truly process.

“I used to be!” Elena said. “But I am no longer a member of the bourgeoisie!

She proudly showed them a book– a primer on communism for Union schoolchildren.

Shalikova had not seen a book like that since she was eleven or twelve years old.

With it in her hands, Elena was as cheery and smiley as Maryam had been.

“I’ve forfeited all of my titles and lands and am adopting a proletarian outlook on life!”

“Well– congratulations.” Shalikova said awkwardly. This all felt incredibly surreal.

“Sonya, she really is– was– a princess– and not only that, but she’s also got psionics too!” Maryam said. “She’s not as strong and cool as you of course, but I felt it from her! That’s why I helped her before. Also because I think she looked a little bit pitiful I guess.” Her head fins flapped a little as she spoke.

“Thank you for your help, wise sister!” Elena said. She bowed her head, a little bit pitifully.

“Oh no! No bowing! It’s fine. I’m just a very helpful girl.” Maryam said, her skin turning tomato-red.

“Maryam, what did you do to help her?” Shalikova asked, narrowing her eyes.

“That doesn’t matter Sonya!” Maryam said with a nervous little smile and a voice full of casual levity, raising her tentacles up like hands in her own clumsy defense. “Look, Elena is asking for help again! We should hear what she has to say and try to help her! Good deeds will do the soul good after all!”

Shalikova couldn’t help but smile. Maryam was a harmless marshmallow anyway.

“Fine. Fine.” Shalikova sighed a little. “Elena, tell us what’s happening.”

“Thank you! Wise sister– and gallant ensign!” Elena declared, clapping her hands together.

The Princess proceeded to tell them about her history with psionics.

She told them about her friend, Victoria van Veka, who left her life one day and just as suddenly returned in a time of a crisis with a strange new power. Elena explained what she had seen her do, and Shalikova immediately realized it. Telekinetics, possibly aura reading– the way that she seemed to “see through” Elena. She even attempted to control Elena’s body, and Marina McKennedy’s too, but both of them were able to muster some level of resistance and completely foiled Victoria’s attempts. Then she began to talk about her own experience trying to use psionics to “calm down” Marina McKennedy–

Shalikova could tell she was lying about some of the events and some of her motivations.

Elena was a sloppy liar. She must have been used to being believed at face value or having her lies accepted due to her status. Shalikova did not need to read auras to know this. Elena’s own tone of voice elevated and fell with the ebb and flow of her embellishments. She had a particularly awkward pause and rise in pitch when she said, “I was trying to calm Marina down– she was scaring me–” Her soft cheeks subtly tightened or twitched too, and it never happened when she was saying words she had clear confidence in. “My schoolfriend Victoria van Veka,” “she seemed to know that our other friend, Sawyer,” etcetera. She spoke with such a noted contrast in both the statements and the shifts in her mannerisms.

Shalikova was too observant, had seen too many such expressions and statements.

She knew all too well when a young girl was blatantly spinning a narrative for her.

Despite this, she allowed Elena to finish her story and kept her reservations to herself.

“When I try to use psionics now, I see a vision of Norn– and she hurts me.“ Elena finished.

In the end, it didn’t change anything whether or not Shalikova and Maryam knew the tiny details of her life to the letter. She already had the power and already could not use it anymore, and Shalikova trusted Maryam would judge her character and deem whether or not she was worthy of it–

“Wah! That’s so tragic! You’ve been through a lot! Come to the cuddlefish right now!”

Maryam practically jumped across the room and wrapped Elena into a tight embrace.

Elena sat speechless and stiff as a sculpture while Maryam hugged her.

Her tentacles relentlessly patted Elena’s head all the while.

“Sister! I appreciate your sympathy! But I’m truly okay, I’m– I’m healing and growing!”

Shalikova narrowed her eyes at the two of them. Maryam started openly weeping.

“Of course we’ll help you! Sonya and I would never turn down a girl in need!”

“Maryam, you– ugh, whatever.” Shalikova mumbled.

Some judge of character she was! Marshmallow-for-brains!

–and yet that was part of what Shalikova truly loved about her too.

Even if she was getting pulled into another surreal event– she would do it for Maryam.

“Sister Maryam, do you really think you could help me?” Elena asked, smiling.

Maryam let go of Elena, walked solemnly back to Shalikova’s side and sat there.

Her tentacles positioned themselves under her chin, as if she was steepling her fingers.

“It’s tricky-inky.” Maryam said.

“Tricky-inky?” Elena asked.

“Maryam, please be serious.” Shalikova sighed.

“Sorry. I’m just trying to cheer you all up! It was such a sad story!” Maryam said. She deflated and sighed and the chromatophores in her skin turned a little duller. “How much do you know about Norn the Praetorian?” She looked principally at Shalikova, causing Elena to turn to face her as well.

“Huh? I don’t know anything.” Shalikova said. “I know what happened recently and that she’s a bigshot Fueller family noblewoman or something like that. We don’t get history for people like that in the Union, it doesn’t really matter to an Ensign. Whether or not I know her history, if she shows up, I have to deploy and then fight her and her troops. Out of all of us officers, probably only the Captain and Commissar would be aware of who an enemy commander is, so they can strategize against her.”

Maryam nodded. “And to you, she’s your aunt, right?” She looked at Elena.

Elena averted her gaze, hands folded over her lap. “She became my aunt when I was a kid. She was adopted into the Fueller family, as an honorary sister to my father, Emperor Konstantin von Fueller. So she became Norn von Fueller that way. I think back then, my father must have been thinking his heirs needed more time to grow into leadership, so he wanted to leave the family in the hands of his strongest retainer. But– before she was my aunt, Norn was just a really scary knight my father employed.”

Maryam nodded again. “Okay. Well– the way I know her is as Cocytus, maybe the most accomplished psychic in the world right now. She was the woman who killed Mehmed Khalifa, the greatest psychic who was ever born or lived. So that’s why it’s going to be tricky to undo her psionics, princess.”

“I’m not a princess. Please call me Elena; or Lettiere if you want to be formal.” Elena said. “And– as for Norn, I sort of guessed she had to have a lot of power to be able to do this strange thing to me.”

“Hold on.” Shalikova said. “Maryam, is she even more powerful than you?”

Maryam smiled a little. “Speaking in terms of ‘power’ is not really accurate. Sonya, if you were issued a Kratov pistol or an AK assault rifle, would you always take the largest caliber weapon?”

“No–” Shalikova was already realizing her foolishness. “It depends on what I need for the job.”

“Indeed! In the same way, psychic ability can’t be summed up as power. I have a lot of psychic things I’m good at. I would say I’m really good with auras for example. I can read and influence moods really well–” Maryam’s fins stood straight up, and she started gesticulating defensively with her hands and tentacles, “–but I haven’t done it to you Sonya! Please don’t distrust me for saying that kind of thing!”

“I trust you!” Shalikova said, smiling and patting Maryam on the back to console her.

Elena meanwhile averted her gaze from the two of them again. She looked– embarrassed?

“Ah, sorry, sorry. I got nervous– Anyway.” Maryam said, smiling. “I couldn’t tell you what Norn has been doing with her powers. Hazarding a guess, she’s probably gotten really good at killing people with them. What I know Norn has on us that’s a huge advantage is experience. It’s a pure function of time– I’ve been practicing psionics since I was an older larva, but Norn is several times my age. Sonya, you have had your powers for a few weeks, and Elena has never been able to use hers properly. Norn is a veteran.”

“How do you know so much about Norn, Maryam?” Shalikova asked.

“Foundation stuff.” Maryam said. She smiled her ‘not saying more’ little smile.

“Oh, like Euphemia Rontgen and Theresa Faraday.” Shalikova said.

She recalled that when they had docked at the Goryk Substation, Maryam was very familiar to those two, they treated her like a kid. She had worked for their mysterious foundation, once upon a time. Shalikova had not brought that back up, and Maryam had been avoiding their guests from Solarflare LLC since then. Or rather, she was avoiding them because Shalikova herself was avoiding everybody.

“You could say, they have a catalog on really powerful psychics.” Maryam continued.

“Can they help us?” Shalikova asked.

“We shouldn’t let them know about Elena.” Maryam said. She looked serious again.

Elena looked nervous. Her voice trembled. “W-Why not? Will they dissect me?”

“Um.” Shalikova turned to Maryam and saw her squirming in her side of the bed.

“Of course not!” Maryam replied, once again waving her tentacles and hands in distress and surprise. “They’re not going to dissect you, that’s crazy! But first of all, they’re busybodies so they would want to give you a funny name and have you join their little club, which you shouldn’t because it’s full of selfish and weird people I don’t like. And then second of all, they probably wouldn’t help anyway.”

Maryam’s eyes narrowed and her tentacles snuck into her hair and wrapped up some of it.

She was trying to imitate Euphrates’ voice, expression and short wavy hair.

“We shouldn’t intervene in anything. It’s actually bad to help people and save the world.”

That was her imitation. Shalikova would have to take it for granted that it was accurate.

“Huh, Maryam is really talented.” Elena said.

“It’s in her genes.” Shalikova said jokingly.

Maryam’s cheeks puffed up and she turned red as a tomato– then she began to strobe red.

It was almost frightening to have that little marshmallow-y warning light beside her.

“Nuh-uh! I learned to do all this stuff! You need to drop the genes talk for good Sonya!”

“Sorry. I’ll stop. It was stupid of me.” Shalikova said, feeling properly ashamed.

Maryam’s skin returned to its normal pink color and her hair turned purple again.

She smiled sweetly. “I can’t stay mad at you Sonya.”

Shalikova could tell what was about to happen but did not avoid Maryam’s embrace.

Again, Elena averted her gaze. Shalikova wondered if they were embarrassing her with their PDA.

“Well, I’m glad I’m not going to have to sleep in the hall tonight.” Shalikova said, partially returning her girlfriend’s embrace. Maryam rubbed her soft, pliable cheek against hers. “We should get back to the problem at hand though. So Norn is way more experienced than us, and she has laid some kind of curse on Elena to prevent her from using her psionics. Is there anything we can even do about that? I had no idea psionics could even work this way. I thought it was just pushing objects and looking at colors.”

“Well,” Maryam’s voice was initially muffled as she was rubbing her cheeks very fervently on Shalikova, but she finally paused enough to speak coherently and separated herself. “It’s the power of the mind over matter, you know, there are a lot of unique things you could do if you believed in it hard enough.”

Maryam finally let go of Shalikova and then crossed her arms.

“I know what she did though. Sonya, look at Elena’s aura.”

“My aura?” Elena asked.

“Don’t worry. It won’t hurt or anything. Just relax.” Shalikova said.

In the next instant, she tapped into the power.

“Wait, her eyes? Is that her doing things?” Elena said.

Indeed, she must have seen the red rings around Shalikova’s irises.

Indicating that Shalikova was performing psionics.

Around and behind Elena, the colors that had she gave off corresponded to an ordinary spectrum of the human emotional experience. Green and blue and a little yellow. Anxiety and a bit of sickness, maybe butterflies in the stomach from the situation at hand, but ultimately, every human had some blue in their aura to indicate they were okay. Blue signified peace, but all humans exhibited some blue in their aura regardless of the situation. Shalikova thought this was the guarantee of life– there was at least always the confidence that a human being could take a step forward and see another day, and that was their blue.

She wondered if, perhaps, on their deathbed, a human’s aura would be consumed in black.

So, this meant Elena had a pretty ordinary aura. Its texture was soft; it was faintly fragrant.

An innocent young girl who truly bore no malice– at that moment.

“Look closely Sonya. You can see it at the very edge, can’t you?” Maryam said.

Shalikova focused. There was no “edge” to an aura, not really, it was amorphous.

And yet, Shalikova could see it, like a thick outline of a hand-drawn character.

There was a very thin band of black around Elena’s aura.

“Elena, are you afraid of dying? Or are you thinking about death?” Shalikova asked.

“No, I’m not.” Elena said. She put a hand over her chest. “I admit I’m pretty nervous and my mood is not in the best of places, I guess. But I at least know I’m safe with all of you. It’s safer than I have felt in months, maybe even years. So no– I’m not concerned with death. Why do you ask?”

“Your aura is a series of colors that psychics can see on you that give a little clue as to your state of mind.” Maryam explained. “We’re seeing a band of black color– that usually means that the person is concerned with death. Either thinking about it or thinking about inflicting death on another person.”

“I’m not thinking about either!” Elena said.

For a moment, the band of black shook and expanded just a little.

“She’s thinking about death now.” Shalikova said. “But not before.”

Elena blinked. She looked like she wanted to crawl away from sight.

“Maryam is that what Norn did to her?” Shalikova asked. “Did she tamper with her aura?”

Maryam nodded. “She affected her aura, yeah. That black band is Norn’s influence. It’s not just the color. When you’ve seen enough auras, you can feel a texture and stuff– it feels Norn-like to me.”

“Norn can really do something like that? Victoria could only smash stuff.” Elena said.

“Anything is possible.” Maryam said. “But, within anything, there are a few specific things which people have observed. It is definitely possible to mess with auras– I can do it to some degree even. That is kind of like, a sub-discipline inside Psionics. You could call it Aetherics. It’s actually really rare, but there are people who can just inject aura into you to change your emotions to what they want.”

Shalikova had never thought it was possible to interact with aura.

She could see it, sure, and she could read it– but to think that she could alter it?

Then she remembered when she saw Maryam completely change the color of her aura.

“Maryam, can you do that?” Shalikova asked.

Maryam shook her head.

She then lifted her hand, holding up the middle three fingers.

“There are three aetheric abilities known by the Foundation. We call them the gifts because they’re rare, when you compare everybody who could do psionics– that’s because only some people figure out they can interact with aura, and even fewer do it a lot.” Maryam said. “The three gifts are Oracle’s Voice, Saint’s Skin and King’s Gaze. They have these names because people who have Oracle’s Voice can feel that this is what the abilities should be referred to as when they experience them. Almost anyone can figure out Oracle’s Voice, it’s just an extension of being able to see auras. Saint’s Skin comes next, it’s the ability to manipulate your own aura and the environmental aura in complex ways. And then– very, very few people in the world are able to use King’s Gaze. It’s the one that lets you manipulate other people’s auras.”

Maryam’s fins drooped and her colors dulled again. “I’m only able to use two.”

She lifted two fingers on her left hand and wiggled them, strobing the colors of their skin.

“So you don’t have the King’s Gaze.” Shalikova said bluntly, coming to a quick conclusion.

“Nope.” Maryam shook her head. “It’s rare! People used to call it the divine right of kings!”

Shalikova felt a shiver of fear deep in her chest. “But Norn has that ability somehow.”

“If anyone alive right now has the power of kings– it’s definitely Norn the Praetorian.”

“I’m doomed.” Elena moaned, holding her face in her hands.

“No you’re not!” Maryam said in a dismissive, whiny little voice. She cleared her throat and crossed her arms and tried to look terribly serious. “Give me some time to think and come up with a plan. This isn’t something we were ever going to confront on a whim one afternoon. Put it out of your mind for now, don’t tell anyone and don’t try to do any psionics. I will think about how to fix this, and Sonya will help me, right Sonya?” She turned to her girlfriend with big, bright and expectant W-shaped eyes.

“Of course. I told you before, I’ll stick with you and protect you, no matter what.”

Shalikova replied quickly. She was not only adamant on upholding the oath she made to herself, to protect her heart and cherished treasure– but also curious about these powers that Maryam had explained and interested in seeing how Maryam tackled another psychic’s antagonistic devilry. It struck her that it would be their first confrontation with psionics that were inflicted on someone to do harm. She felt a grim sense that it would be the first of many if they stuck to their chosen path.

For a girl who desired to spread psionics to the world and make a positive impact–

–exorcising the evil deeds of other psychics would likely play a tragically large part too.

Elena smiled. “Of course. Thank you. I’ll be patient and follow your instructions, sister.”

“You can just call me Maryam.” She pointed her two tentacles to her right. “And Sonya.”

“Don’t call me Sonya.” Shalikova said quickly to Elena. “Shalikova will be fine.”

“Thank you, Maryam, Shalikova.” Elena sighed with relief. “I feel better already.”

“Yeah! That’s the spirit. We’re two heroes chosen by God– we’ll reverse Norn’s curse!”

Maryam hyped herself up, but Shalikova couldn’t imagine it would be easy.

She herself had absolutely no great talent for psionics.

And Maryam herself had admitted to being less accomplished than Norn.

Elena looked quite satisfied, however, as if she had gotten it all off her chest now.

She left the room with a bubbly smile and a spring in her step.

As soon as the door closed, Maryam hooked an arm around Shalikova’s shoulder.

She started rubbing her soft, squishy cheek up against Shalikova’s face.

“Didn’t that feel good Sonya? Don’t you feel so fulfilled?” Maryam asked.

“Not especially.” Shalikova replied, sidling closer to Maryam to return her affection.

Maryam giggled. “She called me wise sister.” She seemed elated by this for some time.


“Apologies for the wait, valued clients. Here are your goods.”

A tall blonde woman set down a case on the table and opened the lid. Inside, in three neat rows, there were a variety of ID cards organized alphabetically and by type, and a fourth row had several plastic lanyards in packs. Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara picked up their own cards which were slightly above the rest, in order for Cecilia Foss to be able to easily pick them out to explain the differences.

“Madam Bashara has a Shimii work permit ID, you can tell it apart by the green stripe.” Cecilia said. “This allows her freedom of movement in Kreuzung for the purposes of going to and from work, as well as frequenting restaurants and shops in Kreuzung between the hours of 0800 and 2000. This means she is subject to a curfew in the core station. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the law, and we can’t get around it.”

Cecilia touched the top of Aaliyah’s ID, running her trimmed red fingernail over the stripe.

“There are 39 work permit IDs here for every Shimii that you disclosed to be aboard. For Katarrans and North Bosporans there are 31 temporary access permits each of which lasts thirty days with a single potential sixty day extension. Those are the ones with the red stripe. You, Madam Korabiskaya, are holding a provisional Station ID. I secured an appropriate amount of these for all Volgian and Imbrian personnel. We have registered all Volgians as Imbrians. Those IDs are the ones with the blue stripe, and provide full freedom of movement without curfew, as well as 180 days of stay. These can’t be extended, but you can apply for a full citizen’s ID within that time period if anyone wants to stay long-term.”

She spoke quickly but with clarity, and with an easy confidence in herself.

“For your security, we went through a process of identity laundering. Each individual should check their card for the name written on it, but it will only matter if they are stopped. Anyone who looks too closely and has enough access can determine the documents are fake and that the personages referenced do not exist, but no station security guard will go that far unless they request a departmental investigation, rather than just a stop or even an overnight arrest. A departmental investigation is unlikely, but possible.“

Ulyana was quite impressed with Cecilia Foss. She could understand easily how Euphrates entrusted her with day-to-day management of Solarflare’s personnel operations. She was the image of a high-powered lawyer, with her pencil skirt and business attire, long orderly blond hair, perfect makeup, steeply angled black pumps. Every movement she made looked deadly precise, and every word she spoke was said without any hesitation. It was as if her every second was planned ahead. Not only that, but she had these connections to the underworld and seemed to have an impressive ability to break the law.

“I’ve provided lanyards for all personnel that were disclosed. I would strongly advise for all personnel to wear their IDs around their necks for the duration of your stay. In the event that one of your personnel is stopped by a law enforcement officer, their ID card will be scanned and will show that they are legitimately registered with the Kreuzung government, and their false identity will not be questioned right away. Please insist upon your crew not to backtalk or argue with Kreuzung security personnel– every single word can be incriminating, and every officer is looking for an excuse to take punitive action. Should an incident occur, it is imperative that I be contacted right away. But your personnel must request that I be contacted. If you desire, I can offer a script you can pass along to them to memorize as well as my business card for representation. The script is short, simple and it’s all they ever need to say to an officer.”

“Thank you kindly, Madam Foss.” Aaliyah said. “We would be most grateful for it.”

“Duly noted. I’ll send everything to Madam Semyonova for dissemination. Is that acceptable?”

“That would be great. Thank you.” Ulyana said. It was hard to say anything more.

Cecilia smiled at them and bowed her head. “Again, I apologize for the time it took to secure these permits and IDs. And don’t worry about us– in the event there is a full investigation, we will be able to escape liability, even if you are forced to escape.” She gestured with a hand towards the wall. ”Your crew is always welcome at Solarflare LLC, even past curfew. May I escort you to our premises now?”

“We’ll take you up on that offer.” Ulyana said. “We have a meeting coming up over there.”

“Indeed. I was already informed. Whenever you are ready, I can lead the way to our campus.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana clipped their ID cards to the provided lanyards, left the rest of the IDs in the meeting room for Semyonova to distribute, and followed Cecilia Foss out of the Brigand and to the tram station that would take them to Tower Five. Aaliyah marveled at the buildings, the wide open space, the false skies and the sheer scale of the operation being carried out to repair and refit the Brigand. Her wide-eyed wonder was incredibly cute to behold as they trailed together behind Cecilia. Ulyana felt relieved and elated that Aaliyah finally able to leave the ship and get a breath of the station’s air.

Especially owing to the purpose of the day’s meeting. She needed Aaliyah by her side.

They were headed to Solarflare to meet with Gloria Innocence Luxembourg.

Despite receiving some heartening news about the Union’s exploits farther south, Ulyana and Aaliyah agreed that their mission and its parameters had to remain the same for now. They had to help train, equip and support dissidents in the Empire with the ultimate goal of safeguarding the successful revolution in Buren. Pursuing that goal gave them options and opportunities, and it let them interact with what was directly in front of them. Allies, enemies, and the moment to moment. So they had to pursue their leads with the United Front, and only then could they dream about joining the Union war effort.

“Ultimately, our course and actions aren’t changed because the Union occupied Sverland.”

Aaliyah had said that during their discussion.

Ulyana agreed wholeheartedly with that wisdom. They would stay the course for now.

“Once we leave Kreuzung, we’ll launch a comm buoy and request additional information from Nagavanshi.” Ulyana said. “Then we’ll keep going our won way until we hear back via the ELF.”

Staying the course, meant tackling the opportunity Kremina Qote had given them.

They would pursue her leads to the United Front, in order to train, equip and support them.

First on the agenda was the S.P.R. and their militant wing, Reichbanner Schwarzrot.

Euphrates and Cecilia had organized a little office for the meetings to take place on the Solarflare campus. White walls, a door with a digitally-operated lock, no windows. There were gel-cushioned chairs, a long table, plenty of outlets and ports for devices, a monitor on an arm if it was necessary, and a dispenser for coffee, water or mushroom and algae broth. There was a bathroom nearby, and small wheeled table in a corner had writing implements and stone paper if it was needed. Aaliyah and Ulyana waved goodbye to Cecilia Foss, who had a packed schedule, and set up in the office.

“They know to come here, right?” Aaliyah asked.

“They know to meet us at Solarflare. The receptionist will send them here.” Ulyana said.

At the appointed hour, someone knocked on their door.

Hallo? Any comrades here? Is this the right place?” A casual and relaxed voice.

“There are comrades here, of a sort.” Ulyana called out. She unlocked the room remotely.

When the door opened, a fair-skinned man in formal attire walked in with an easy gait and sat down in front of them. He looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties, Ulyana thought. He had a long-limbed and somewhat thin physique with strong shoulders. He had a good jaw and was clean shaven, but seemed to pay little attention to the state of his hair, which was cut short but a little bit fluffy as if uncombed. His eyes looked distant and tired, narrow with the beginnings of bags under them.

He wore a very nonchalant expression. Ulyana would have described him as an “everyman,” a cipher for the average Imbrian man who might still have been derisively called “boy” sometimes by his superiors. His dark grey suit was spectacular however, it was easily the most notable part of him, exceedingly well-tailored, perfectly fitted, and it looked almost as if it had been made with actual cotton or even silk.

It was the kind of suit that took a guy like this from 5/10 to 7/10 somehow, Ulyana thought.

He had a portable computer with him that was the size of an adult’s head, and which came with its own stand by which to prop it up. With a sort of briefly exasperated look on his face, he set up the computer on the table so that it would face Ulyana and Aaliyah. There was a frame around the screen that had embossed pink roses and gold filigree. When he had stood it up, he pressed down a switch on the side, before sitting down next to it on the other end of the table, crossing his arms and sighing.

Ulyana and Aaliyah watched him go through this process silently.

“Her highness will be connecting shortly. I hope. May have to muck about with the WiFi.”

“Gloria Innocence Luxembourg?” Aaliyah asked.

“That’s her. Hopefully you weren’t expecting her in person.” Said the man.

“I don’t know what I was expecting, I suppose.” Aaliyah said.

“Can you introduce yourself? Are you able to speak for the S.P.R?” Ulyana asked.

“Uhhh– in some capacity.” He said. “My name is Orlan Aries. I guess I’m not a particularly political guy, but I got caught up in all of this for some reason. I don’t have strong opinions. The pay is good, and I like to say I see things through to the end, so here I am. Um– I was originally just joining the security team at Raylight Beauty, but I guess my hard work was noticed. Gloria must like me, or I wouldn’t be here. I’m representing — forgive this extremely presumptuous name — the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot.”

Ulyana did not believe a single word of that.

It wasn’t that she was predisposed to distrust anything the United Front groups said.

Far from it– she wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt as potential partners.

However, for someone rich, connected and powerful like Gloria Innocence Luxembourg to trust someone to “accompany her” (in this unique capacity) to this exclusive, clandestine meeting, that person could not possibly have been someone who viewed his own career with so many somehow, I guess and Um. His too-casual demeanor was definitely a front for something, but she couldn’t say what it was.

Orlan eyed the display with his jaw set. “Any day now, princess.”

Beside him, the screen suddenly flickered the manufacturers logo and then displayed a video feed, as if beckoned by Orlan himself. It happened with such little sense of transition that he was looking at the display with exasperation as it was turned on. In his surprise, he jerked away from it and nearly fell– this reaction looked humorous when contrasted with the overwhelmingly saccharine girl that appeared.

“I hope I didn’t keep you waiting long! Thank you so much for your time!”

On the screen appeared a young lady, soft featured and pretty with dark eyes that glimmered in the center like they had a small starry sky for pupils and irises. Her pink hair was voluminous and long but very fastidiously orderly, with a neat and trimmed fringe and sidelocks. Some of her hair was collected with a red rose ribbon into a single small ponytail on the side of her head. She appeared to be wearing a white, long sleeved top or dress with a tall, lacy and frilly collar, along with a white capelet with red rose decorative trim. On the video feed, she appeared from the shoulders up, emphasizing her smile.

“I hope you are having a blessed day. Allow me to introduce myself.” She said. “My name is Gloria Innocence Luxembourg. I am the Presidential Candidate and chairwoman of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Rhinea. I am also the founder of Raylight Beauty Products GmbH; the biggest private employer of women in the Imbrium. My blood type is O, my constellation is Leo, and I love cute girls.”

Gloria flashed Ulyana and Aaliyah another sun-bright smile.

“This is an encrypted connection, right?” Aaliyah asked, staring at Orlan.

Orlan looked surprised to have been addressed. “Uh yes. Yes– it is, isn’t it ma’am?”

He looked with a sudden nervousness at Gloria as if he could no longer be sure.

“Absolutely. Unless you changed all my cute little settings on my portable.” Gloria said.

“Wouldn’t dream of touching the damn things.” Orlan sighed.

“Alright, since we can speak freely. I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya, Captain of–”

“–the super-cool UNX-001 Brigand!” Gloria interrupted happily. “Alias Pandora’s Box.”

Ulyana narrowed her eyes slightly. She was starting to get fed up with Gloria’s whimsy.

“Looks like Kremina did fill you in.” Aaliyah said. “I’m Aaliyah Bashara, Commissar.”

“Indeed! Then we are all meeting the right people. Isn’t it lovely, Orlan?” Gloria asked.

Orlan again looked confused about being addressed. “Yes, it’s a little tea party alright.”

Even he sounded exasperated with her already. Gloria continued smiling, so carefree.

“A tea party! How wonderful– I truly would love to host you someday, Ulyana, Aaliyah– circumstances permitting. However, I know we’re all short on time and long on business, so I will stop fooling around. I want you to know, even if you decide not to join our Reichsbanner Schwarzrot, I will still regard you as fellows, and I’d be happy to collab someday! To me, we are all part of one struggle. Now then, I also want to answer all of your questions today and see if I can’t snatch you away for myself, of course.”

Gloria winked at them. She spoke and acted so casually, with an easy, natural confidence.

Ulyana appreciated her friendly openness, but she wasn’t completely sure of its sincerity.

It felt too easy to like Gloria, or to overlook her. Was she just being manipulative?

“We are certainly open to working with you. Kremina may have told you, but we would like to assist the United Front that is forming in Aachen. We have combat equipment we can distribute to you, and we can offer training– and of course we can also fight alongside you if you have operational plans.” Ulyana said. “I’m curious about the S.P.R. You’re an underground party, so we can’t just find your agenda recorded on our computers. Can you explain the S.P.R.’s origin and your own involvement in it?

Gloria’s cheeks lifted, her biggest, most girlish smile accompanied with a tittering laugh.

“Perhaps ironically, I learned that the world was fundamentally unjust at my family’s own Luxembourg School for Girls.” She said. “My older brother controls the school now, but I attended as a teenager. I tried my best to lead a normative life, but I realized that regardless of my name and wealth, there were elements of myself which made me lesser than other people in the right-wing culture of Imbria. I began to take an interest in dissident literature and in secret became one of the rebels of Luxembourg school. The seed of the S.P.R. was my secret reading group back then.” Gloria looked proud of herself when she spoke up next. “I even met with the dissident queen herself, Leda Lettiere, one fateful day.”

Ulyana made note of that. It was name she had heard a few times already.

Queen Leda von Fueller, Elena’s mother; Marina’s lover; victim of the Emperor himself.

Leda Lettiere was executed directly after the Union’s victory in the Revolution.

For Gloria to have met her as a student, she couldn’t be a cutesy girl in her twenties.

She had to have been in her late thirties. Ulyana’s age– maybe even older.

“How did you feel about what happened to the lady Lettiere?” Aaliyah asked.

For a moment, Gloria seemed to pause. Her arm shifted just a little bit. It tensed.

“It was such an atrocity.” Gloria said. She was still smiling or trying to smile. But she did look just a bit dimmer than before. “She was taken from her previous life by a man whom she could not deny, and then he destroyed her utterly. One of the most iconic women of our time, who did her best to inspire women to strive for better. A beautiful angel who even fought a secret battle from inside that cage in order to liberate us all.” Gloria’s tone took a slightly sharp edge but then suddenly became a little more upbeat.

Ulyana thought, maybe she felt she had said too much that was too personal. So she corrected herself.

“Politically, that moment did not affect me. I already knew that women were disposable. Eccentric women, rebellious women, queer women, even more so. We are allowed to work, to speak; to own property and earn money; even to fight in the military; but we are always lesser-than. It’s an inextricable pall which Imperial society casts over us. Right-wing society; fascist society. I founded Raylight Beauty as a haven for women and girls. A place where they would be valued, selling things which made other girls feel beautiful and confident. But my goal was always to do what Lettiere couldn’t. To build a weapon that could strike against Konstantin von Fueller. Of course, there’s necessarily a different target for it now.”

“Was Mordecai among your dissident readings?” Ulyana asked.

“He featured prominently. His work on class conflict is absolutely necessary.” Gloria said.

“What led you to align your party specifically with social democracy?” Ulyana asked.

Gloria’s smile returned in its full force. “Mordecai did not advocate any specifics for how to organize a government in his works. He did not talk about how ministries and bureaus would come about once the old ones fell, or how to distribute power. But he did hold the fight for the suffrage of the lower classes in high regard as a condition for the social advancement of the proletariat. I believe that representative democracy with a one-person to one-vote approach is the fairest way to communicate the desires of the total mass of the proletariat; and like Mordecai, I believe that the failure of representative democracy in Rhinea specifically is due to its class character rather than the sum minutia of its mechanics.”

While many people would have argued the Union was not democratic whatsoever, and that it was a dictatorship now ruled by Bhavani Jayasankar, the distinction cited by Gloria for her vision of democracy was very specific in nature. In the Union, there was a practice of “council democracy” though the democracy part was, nowadays, often left out, and Bhavani Jayasankar did not acknowledge that word. She called it instead “council governance” or “sovietism.” There was universal suffrage in the Union but the mechanics of this suffrage was not carried out as specifically individually as it was in Rhinea.

In the Union, the mass of the working public was represented by delegates. A station’s population was organized into workplace unions, student unions for higher level educational institutions, and for Shimii, the Marja was its own institution with delegation as well. Each group directly voted for delegates (Shimii got to vote for delegates for their workplace and for delegates of the Marja as well), and those delegates represented them at their station council or soviet. In turn, station councils chose delegates for regional councils, and regional councils chose delegates for the Supreme Soviet. After being elected, the delegates made any legislative decisions in the interests of their constituents, with the check that recall or dismissal was possible if they failed to secure the population’s interests. Beyond local policy, a lower-level council could influence the higher-level council that they voted into power by petitioning in the interest of their local constituents for a regional or supreme policy action, again with the implied danger of dismissal.

It did not always play out this way– local and regional eccentricities abounded in the specifics of governance, but that was the model and that was how it worked on average. Policy was supposed to be set at each level, while also percolating up and down between them. It was a delicate balance that still allowed local decisions to be made by locals, and national decisions to be made collectively, nationally. There was an element of direct democracy in petitions, which were available at all levels of the system to reflect the desire for a certain policy, and communicate that desire to the appropriate level of council.

It wasn’t perfect– but it existed. It was the Union’s own version of “representation.”

Everyone outside the Union would find this unconvincing. After all, Bhavani Jayasankar ”took power in a coup” and now enjoyed ”supreme leadership;” but the power she took was that of the Premier, who was supposed to be beholden to the national and Supreme Soviets. The Premier faced a “vote to retain,” in which the Soviets had to express positive sentiment toward her rule in order for her to stay in power. In addition, Bhavani was not so all-powerful, even after her “military coup,” that she was able to directly set local water-use policy in Sevastopol or arbitrarily set holiday benefits for textile workers in New Karach.

Rather the system was supposed to be read as such: the Premier set the direction of the country, led the military, drafted economic plans, and tried to create an agenda for the country; the Supreme Soviet took that agenda and created “national legislation;“ the regional councils handled “legislation for Ferris, Lyser and Solstice individually;“ and station councils created “legislation for the people living in the station.“

Regardless; Ulyana felt she read a certain defensive undertone in Gloria’s statements.

She was doing something fundamentally different than the Union. She was asserting that fact.

People voted directly for national representatives in a congress, and voted directly for a President.

According to Gloria, this she derived from Mordecai himself, the “fairer” form of democracy.

Ulyana was not someone like Murati, however, so she would not argue the point.

But the point had been clearly laid out before her by the ever-smiling Gloria.

“We are Union communists. Do you feel comfortable working with us?” Aaliyah asked.

Now that was the response of someone slightly closer to Murati than Ulyana was.

Their guest did not appear to be perturbed by the question whatsoever.

“Like I said, I believe we are friends in this struggle. Both of us despise the Volkisch Movement and we want to see it destroyed and that is what ultimately matters to me. I’m happy to work with anyone who will oppose the spread of their evil– in fact, the United Front was my idea.” Gloria replied. Ulyana and Aaliyah both lifted their brows a little with surprise. “I reached out to some of the anarchist cells that use the Iron Front insignia, and I reached out to the Rotfront. I’ve even reached out to some of the ousted politicians– unfortunately, it was even I and my group who confirmed the death of Ossof Heidemann, who opposed Adam Lehner in the presidential election. The Volkisch’s petty revenge, no doubt.”

Kremina had never said it was Gloria’s idea initially, though she also never said otherwise.

But both of them had assumed that it was Daksha Kansal’s doing as they learned more.

“That’s a pretty impressive organizational lift, especially to keep hidden.” Ulyana said.

“I have a lot of help, and I pay really well!” Gloria said. “Isn’t that right, Orlan?”

Orlan glanced sidelong at the display, crossing his arms and leaning back.

“Huh? My pay? It’s fine. I could make more as a mercenary– but with no benefits.”

“Hmph! My benefits package is industry-leading! How could you want to be a mercenary?”

“I didn’t say I wanted to be one! I just believe in myself a bit is all, your majesty!”

“Hmph! Hmph! Hmph!”

Gloria acted comically upset by Orlan’s ungratefulness for a few moments.

Before sighing serenely and putting on a smile again.

“Don’t mind him. That’s the kind of relationship we have.” Gloria said.

“Duly noted.” Aaliyah replied dryly.

“How strong is the United Front militarily?” Ulyana asked, trying to move forward.

Gloria put a long finger on her lips and made a little ‘thinking pose.’

“We would have to see who shows up at Aachen for the formal establishment.” Gloria said. “I can only speak for myself. I told you I was building a weapon to destroy Konstantin before. While I have been organizing the S.P.R.’s political contacts surreptitiously, I have also been forming my own military. We use Raylight Beauty’s security corps as a front. I dubbed the group Reichsbanner Schwarzrot, after the black and red Rhinean ducal flag. We have amassed eleven vessels of our own design, and we have the numbers of Divers and infantry to match. You should see my flagship! It’s super great!”

She clapped her hands cheerfully. Ulyana nodded her head and jotted down notes.

“So we’ll have to join you at Aachen to really get a sense of its scope? Works for me.”

“Indeed! Until everything’s properly signed up, I can’t really speak with certainty. I hope that all of the friends I made will join me in my battle against the Volkisch, and all that is unjust in our Imbrium Ocean.” Gloria said, holding a hand up over her heart as if swearing an oath in front of them.

“Gloria, what role does Daksha Kansal have in your organization?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana was glad that Aaliyah was taking it upon herself to tackle the tougher questions.

It was nice to have her there as a counterpart. Good Captain; mean Commissar.

“She is one of my advisors in the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot. We talk about politics and about military moves– but I don’t want to cause a misunderstanding.” Gloria’s eyes narrowed just a little bit. “I’m in command of the S.P.R. and the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot. Daksha Kansal’s support is greatly appreciated, but she’s as appreciated as you, or the rest of my war buddies, and no better than anyone.”

Much like Ulyana and Aaliyah acted toward Kremina Qote, Gloria had to set her foot down.

It was another way of saying, I’m not Daksha Kansal’s subordinate.

A revolutionary leader with proven success was a potential problem to an up-and-comer.

Even if her charisma and experience was invaluable– it was the same tension they had felt.

“One last question.” Ulyana said. It was her turn to ask a very tough one. “We’ve been in Kreuzung for a few days and it’s been awful. What do you think of the attitude of Rhineans toward other ethnicities?”

Gloria continued smiling, unfazed by the question.

“Oh, it’s deplorable, surely. Eisental has a long history with Shimii and all of it has been truly regrettable. You know, working folk here keep to themselves a lot. I don’t want to blame them for a lack of social education– but it’s definitely something that must be set to right. I believe in universal suffrage, and universal participation. My presidency would entail an egalitarian revolution for Rhinea.”

Ulyana wasn’t impressed, but she kept that to herself. Gloria had no substance here.

Aaliyah wore no expression on her face as she heard Gloria’s response.

“I think we’ve got what we wanted out of this.” Aaliyah said. “Thank you for your time, Lady Luxembourg. We shall most assuredly take you up on that offer for tea in Aachen Station and discuss further.”

Gloria clapped her hands rapidly again. “Goodie! I look forward to it. Tah-tah!”

She performed a cutesy military salute, and the screen went dim as suddenly as it had lit.

Orlan looked at it for a moment before picking it up.

“Uh. Do you have any questions for me?” He asked.

“No, thank you for your time as well Orlan.” Ulyana said.

Orlan made a cutesy salute similar to Gloria’s before leaving with Gloria’s portable.

As soon as the door shut behind him, Ulyana and Aaliyah each let out a long-held sigh.

That was the first of the groups, and also the one directly supported by Daksha Kansal.

“What exactly is our esteemed first Premier thinking?“ Aaliyah moaned, lying her chest on the table, her cat ears folded. Ulyana laid a comforting hand on her back, thinking the same thing…


“Please, I’ll do anything you want. I’ll give you anything you want.”

“Hmm? You broke easily. That’s not terribly romantic, you know?”

Pavel Rovski was not someone known to ‘break easily’–

–except when staring at the crosshair eyes of the woman sitting back on a chair before him, whose legs she had lifted to rest directly through the center of his desk. He seemed to lose all composure as if he was no longer witnessing something human. Though she was startlingly beautiful, her presence was wrong.

But Rovski was cornered. They had found him out and he was not ready.

Behind him, the open door leading to the reception hall was guarded by two women, both very pale as Pavel’s assailant was. One was far more intricately dressed and decorated. The other appeared spartan, dressed in what seemed like a white uniform, with a capelet and pants and a weapon that looked like a cross between a rifle and a drying wound, covered in dark bruised flesh with a black barrel.

He spared not a second to stare at that alien sight, however.

His eyes were locked on those of Enforcer I of the First Sphere, Avaritia.

He could not tear them away. He was not being allowed to.

“Pavel Rovski of the ‘Rovski’ cell.” Avaritia smiled to herself. “It’s so delightful to meet you. I do love this scenario– you made such a beautifully romantic mistake. I thought of anarchists as being very mechanical, but I should have known, you have a very libertine ideology after all.”

Avaritia was overcome with joy at the circumstances that led to this meeting.

Pavel Rovski was a central figure (not leader, he never would have said leader, none of them would) of the ‘Rovski’ anarchist cell. It was only referred to this way outside of its ranks. To its members, this was the “Left Arrow” or “Third Arrow.” But Rovski was one of the secret keepers of the cell’s ranks– one of the few who could rally an entire thousand-strong battalion of the anarchist ranks, who were otherwise distributed in groups of fours and fives that communicated very sparingly and surreptitiously. He would only gather them when the time was right to take an action that ‘would mean something’.

Unfortunately, he was not dispassionate enough about the whole scheme.

He became interested in one particularly fiery young woman on his list, and sought after her.

That she was a lesbian– didn’t seem to deter him at all. He went to meet her in person.

Avaritia laughed at him. Such foolishness that brought him to this day!

She recalled something the Autarch had once told her.

“We have always been with them. Watching them. Laughing at them.”

Avaritia was laughing. But in her mind, she was not being cruel. Hominins were just so interesting.

She just loved the romance of it. Pavel Rovski, an unromantic man in a romantic situation.

From the doorway, her lover Gula spoke up, her arms behind her back, smiling daintily.

“Zozia is here with us today, you know? But you won’t meet her– she wouldn’t want you to. She was disgusted with you. You were an old man, and you should’ve never spoken to her. I do hope that you will not hate us for today. Hate yourself instead; despise yourself for your betrayal of your comrades.”

Pavel winced but was limited in his responses.

Avaritia’s green aura seeped into him, through green tentacles he could not see.

That had perforated him in a dozen places.

Filling him with crippling fear and anxiety that utterly warped his personality.

All of his much-vaunted bravery stood for nothing in the face of Avaritia’s commanding gaze.

“To think, a simple family lawyer could have been involved in a terrorist group!”

Avaritia laughed again.

Today, the site of their infiltration was a law office in Tower Six’s central commercial space. Beautiful brown interiors like fake wood, offices and halls amply varnished, the desks too, all earth tones, very peaceful. There were about two dozen clerks, lawyers, and the big boss of the place, Raszyn Grebber– Rovski was but one of many lawyers who worked here. An unassuming older man, average in every way, tucked away into a corner of this humble office, scheming to take down the Imbrian Empire!

Rovski’s jaw lightly unhinged, but he could not speak. He was far too crushed to do so.

“Gula, is it not terribly romantic? Is it not?” Avaritia said.

Gula, looking almost small beside her prince, tipped her head in a cute gesture.

“It is, my darling, atrociously romantic.”

Savagely romantic.”

Gula approached from the door and wrapped her arms around Avaritia’s shoulders.

Her head, peeking out beside Avaritia’s, bared suddenly sharp, saw-like teeth.

“So what happens to Monsieur Rovski now, my prince? Can I eat him?” Gula said.

Avaritia, still leaning back on her chair, raised a hand and stroked Gula’s hair gently.

“I’m afraid not, beloved princess. I need to disseminate the information he knows soon, and it would take too long if we ate him and loaded his blocks into our STEMs. We have an important meeting later today, after all. And like you said, it would be disgusting if he went near Zozia and Ksenia. It wouldn’t be romantic at all. So neither of us will eat him. We’ll transport him, and talk on the way.” Avaritia said.

“That makes a world of sense. You are so wise and so cultured, my prince, my knight!”

Gula stretched a long tongue from her mouth and licked Avaritia’s neck

Avaritia felt a sudden desire to bite her– but a voice from the door caught her attention–

“Um. I apologize for interrupting, exalted beings. But Vanguard L may perish from having to synthesize more gas– so, without casting judgment on your wisdom, I believe we should extract soon.”

Behind the two of them, guarding the door, in uniform and hat and wielding a bio-spike launcher disguised as a rifle, was Wizard III of the Second Sphere. She was one of the subcommanders of the Syzygy forces under Enforcers I and III. It had been difficult to convince the Autarch to part with Wizard and Observer type units, particularly to part with them for Enforcer I specifically– but eventually their exalted leader saw the wisdom in it. Just two people would not make a convincing force.

They would need to wield military power like the Hominins did, for the tasks that lay ahead.

Avaritia got her feet off the table and stood up, carefully gesturing for Gula to move aside.

Her gaze caused Wizard III to shudder as soon as it fell upon her.

She was, like most Omenseers born this side of the Holocene, a very pale girl with long, white hair and fairly thin and lean physique. She divided her hair into two tails, between which she laid the flat military cap that Avaritia had given her as part of Syzygy’s new, more “hominin”-fashionable uniform. Her twintails each had a stripe of blue hair running through them, which helped her to stand out more.

“F-Forgive me, Exalted Being. I spoke out line. Please forgive me.” She mumbled.

Avaritia smiled. She reached out and stroked Wizard III’s cheek.

“Wizard III of the Second Sphere.” Avaritia said. “Do you know who I am?”

“Um– of course– you’re our most exalted flesh, Enforcer I of the First Sphere.”

“Indeed. Do you know any more than that?”

“I was not afforded any additional information, your biological excellence. I apologize greatly.”

Avaritia grinned at her, bearing teeth. “When I was a Leviathan, I was a dreadnought class known among the Hominin as the Horror of Dys. I was the Island-Sinker, the Eater of Skies. Such is my power that I awakened myself too– the Autarch did not have to lift me from sleep as she did you.”

Her fingers squeezed just a little bit on Wizard III’s jaw. Not enough to cause any pain.

That is terribly impressive. I am blessed with this knowledge, exalted, superior being.

Because her mouth was seized, Wizard III communicated telepathically.

Perhaps so as not to disgrace herself to the Enforcer by babbling.

Avaritia lifted her hand from Wizard III’s face.

“Ultimately, my point is–”

She put that hand on Wizard III’s shoulder and smiled at her, winking one eye.

“Relax! Relax and be neither so scared nor so formal! Such things are not romantic at all. Had I wanted to punish you, my dear Wizard III, the violence would have been fast and vicious and required no dialog. Your assessment is correct, and we should indeed get moving soon before poor little Vanguard L has to exert herself again. With all the chemicals I made her digest, she must be in quite a state.”

Gula clapped her hands together with tittering delight. “Wonderfully said, my prince.”

Wizard III’s wide-open eyes narrowed, and she sighed with relief.

“How much do you know about anarchism, Wizard III?” Avaritia asked.

“Not a thing, exalted– err, Enforcer I.” Wizard III said.

Behind them, out in the halls and other rooms of the law office of Raszyn Grebber, there were several hominin toppled over wherever they had been sitting or standing due to the highly concentrated knockout gas that they had spread through the building. Vanguard L could be seen with her back to the wall farther outside, her jaw hanging open, coughing wisps of gas, her eyes twitching, limbs limp.

“Well, it is as I thought. We’ll need to teach you all how to be anarchists very quickly.”

Avaritia turned back to Mister Rovski, her crosshair eyes locking on to him.

She walked the way few steps back from the door, and Wizard III, to the side of the desk where Rovski was staring at them, crushed with fear, alive but immobile, no part of him having even twitched save for his horribly aware eyes that were tracking the alien figures, and his shaking jaw trying to cry for help to no one in particular. Avaritia walked over to him, and laid her hand on his shoulder, gripping her fingers. Hard at first, and harder still, until blood began to draw, until her fingers began to sink into him

“His resistance is weakened enough.” Avaritia said.

Around her irises, the red circles of psionic ability began to strobe and deepen.

She could feel his defenses collapsing one by one, until–

Biokinesis

drawn blood drawing backward into wound

reversing fingers spreading as stream

bone and sinew soft and malleable

skin and organ digesting into thread

spinning loom turning body about axis

hominin–

dehomininized–

“Oh! That is clever, clever indeed!” Gula smiled, with a sadistic edge to her little grin.

Avaritia had been careful not to spill anything despite how quickly she worked.

The tendrils which her hands had become, became hands again; in her grasp she had a rough white box of bones and skin the size of a human torso. There were a few silly decorations here and there– a crown of teeth along the top edge, filigree in sinew. Inside the box was a brain and everything a brain needed to be cozy for a little while, enough that they could probe its knowledge using telepathy.

Once they were done it, the box would be placidly ready to die permanently.

Left on the chair, behind the desk, was everything the brain didn’t need to be cozy.

It was most of the body, compacted, bagged-up–

–and it was the thing Avaritia now acknowledged as “Rovski.”

“Wizard III, please quickly clean up the remains of Monsieur Rovski, so we can leave.”

Avaritia shot an authoritative glance at Wizard III.

Staring at the unappetizing collection of offal on the chair, Wizard III sighed deeply again.

“As you command, exalted– I mean, Enforcer I.” She said, ambling toward the chair.

With a grimace, she knelt down near the chair as Avaritia left, and began to chew on the thing.

“Gula, please leave the rest of these kind folks in the office with the sense that nothing in particular worth recalling transpired during the past hour.” Avaritia said. “I would love it if they had calm blue auras and a sense of fulfillment and no earthly reason to care about Pavel Rovski for a long time. Though if any of them are psionic and resisting– Tristitia can make them disappear too I suppose.”

“It shall be done, darling.” Gula replied.

“Please don’t sneak a taste of any of them for now, dearest.” Avaritia added.

“I am more than satiated by the sight of you in command, beloved prince.” Gula replied.

Avaritia nodded. She started walking outside while stroking her own chin.

“From now on, my name is Zozia Chelik and you are Ksenia Apfel, my dear. We will take the place of the ‘Third Arrow’ at the Aachen conference, and with the Pandora’s Box today.” Avaritia said. “The Rovski organization had already contacted twenty people, of which we have intercepted twelve by now. The remaining eight will disappear and be replaced with Wizard and Observer units.”

Gula followed dutifully behind her prince. “Is there any risk of word getting out?”

“Thankfully the other two Arrows are not aware of the specifics of this organization, only their affiliation and their upcoming rejoining at Aachen.” Avaritia said, shaking her head while explaining. “They probably don’t expect to talk to Rovski specifically, even in Aachen. I think we can pretend to be them pretty easily. Rovski’s remaining 1000 members have not been contacted, and we won’t contact them. We’ll fill out our troops with Vanguards and Sentinels and if we have to, Hunters, to make up reasonable numbers.”

“Sounds fun.” Gula said. “Horror of Dys.”

Avaritia grinned. “Don’t call me that, Great Maw of Nysa.”

Gula raised fingers to her lips and giggled to herself.

Behind them, a miserable Wizard III lifted chunks of poor quality meat into her mouth and swallowed.

“I do wonder, my love,“ Gula said, “will this bring us any closer to the Origin Tree?“

Avaritia shrugged. “Anything brings us closer than we are now. Trust me, beloved Gula.“

She could not logically explain, but she certainly felt that it would bring them closer.

Every Hominin clawed and devoured so far had earned them meters toward the goal.

There were currents of aether gathering serendipitously around Kreuzung, around Aachen.

Eisental was a crossing of numerous fates. There was tension in the air among the Hominins.

It was in such times and such places– that homininkind was closest to their ancient keepers.

Rhinea, Solcea and Bosporus formed a triangle– and somewhere in there, the Tree slumbered.

“Step by step, hominin by hominin. We will lay hands on our venerated elder again.” Avaritia said.

She lifted her hand up as if reaching for something ephemeral, endlessly distant.

Grinning all the while. Her crosshair eyes locking on, in a growing obsession.

It would be romantic indeed.


Previous ~ Next

Knight In The Ruins of the End [S1.3]

Depth Gauge: 2155 m

“Alright, lets calm down. We’re all in this together now.”

In an unremarkable meeting room, Gertrude sat across the table from a very remarkable pair of guests. The Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation known as “Nile,” and the special agent of the Vekan Empire, Victoria van Veka. Circumstances had brought these three together on the Inquisitorial flagship Iron Lady, and not a minute had gone by since they sat next to each other, but antagonism was already brimming. Gertrude wanted to get on the topic of the abyssal expedition, but Victoria would not allow it. She launched into accusations without a moment’s rest, while Nile simply sat there with her arms crossed.

“Gertrude, this woman is extremely dangerous. You think you can make use of her, but you’re completely out of your depth. She stands accused of not only building clandestine infrastructure, but we have found evidence of human experimentation, including organs and tissue cultures from god-only-knows-where.”

Gertrude could have imagined it was something like that, with it being the Sunlight Foundation and all–

Nile turned her cheek and scoffed, her tail wagging so fast it was drumming on the chair.

“You completely misunderstand the assets you stole from me. I use my own tissue and DNA to test my products. But of course, you Vekans and your ignorant government are entirely run by biofascist superstitions. If you think an organoid is a living person, then I am a genocidaire par excellence.”

Nile fired back with some science, but allowing this debate was an intolerable can of worms to open.

“This is not the time or the place to define the meaning of human life.” Gertrude interrupted.

Victoria turned her own cheek. “The fact remains, Gertrude, she assembled a large amount of clandestine infrastructure for the purpose of drug manufacturing, away from prying eyes. God knows how many years it took to build all of this, where the funding came from, how it was staffed– other than being full of Katarran mercenaries! I don’t believe she is being altruistic for one second. She and this ‘Sunlight Foundation’ of hers cannot be trusted, and with her capture, the Vekan Empire would be one step closer to unraveling this syndicate and their misdeeds. Even with all of our resources, we’ve only scratched the very tip of the iceberg of what they’ve been doing. You must at least sympathize with that goal.”

Gertrude sighed. “I’m willing to share with you any information we uncover, and any information that Nile wishes to disclose. However, I am curious how you intended to extract information from her if you were to take her into custody. Nile did not strike me as someone who was willing to cooperate with you.”

Nile scoffed. “The Vekans would torture me, obviously. I’m from there, I know what it’s like. Especially to Loup who don’t practice Orthodoxy. Shimiist Loup like me are outright persecuted by the old believers, and Veka has always supported such savagery. Oh, am I getting to you now, you puffed up kitten?”

Victoria had her fists balled up at her side. “We would not have tortured her. This is ridiculous.”

“Trude, I’ll disclose to you our operating methods– but only in the Holy Land of Konstantinople, at the seat of the Inquisition. I am claiming Asylum from the Vekan Empire’s persecution. Until then, I demand that I be judged by my character and deeds, rather than by inferences marred by her bias.” Nile said.

These two were tearing Gertrude apart already. She almost wanted to scream at them.

However, she had her own convictions and her own beliefs which were playing a part.

Though she could believe that Victoria would not support torture herself, Gertrude was not so naive as to believe the Vekans would share her objections. When the Vekan Empire was just the Duchy of Veka, it was widely known to be a less civilized place than the broader Imbrian Empire. Vekans declared clan feuds, engaged in dueling, committed honor killings, practiced blood oaths and rituals, and certainly torture was neither novel nor rare for their military. High Inquisitor Samoylovych, one of Gertrude’s predecessors, had rescued Monika Erke-Tendercloud from a Vekan Sanitarium for the mentally ill. Her Orthodox family had interned her in this facility to “fix her,” and she was awfully abused. Such things were not uncommon in the hinterlands, and upon accession to the office of High Inquisitor, Gertrude witnessed them too.

Though Gertrude tried not to develop a bias, it was hard for her to ignore all the horror stories.

It was convenient for the Empire that Veka had a “warrior culture” that was internally stimulated.

This made them excellent guards for the Empire’s flank to the Mare Crisium and its strange cultures.

Despite fearing them and being disgusted by some of their traditions, the Imbrians let Veka be.

They wrote off the unsavory aspects as simply “Vekan culture” that couldn’t or shouldn’t be opposed.

So if it was Vekan culture and couldn’t be changed, then Victoria had to deal with the consequences.

“Victoria, the fact of the matter is that Nile is under my custody now.” Gertrude said, putting up a firm front. “I have a strong suspicion, and it is growing stronger, that she would have been abused in the custody of the Vekans. This is not a judgment on you personally, but releasing her to your allies is out of the question as they cannot be trusted not to violate her humanity. Since it is out of the question, I demand the issue be dropped, and I further demand that the two of you cease these needless hostilities.”

She laid out her concerns and conditions as gently but firmly as she could, hoping to stifle further tension.

First she looked to Victoria–

“Fine. I will pay close attention to your own much-vaunted ethics and see if there is any merit to your treatment of this criminal.” Victoria said, arms crossed, tongue dripping with venomous sarcasm.

“Thank you. I will endeavor be so inspiring that you come to mean that sincerely.” Gertrude replied.

Then she turned to face Nile–

“I will cherish the trust you put in me, ‘Trude.” Nile said, wagging her tail and smiling with her eyes.

Gertrude frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t trust either of you quite yet. But I hope I can at least expect you to be honorable. I want you two to shake hands right now, and at the very least, to swear to stay out of each other’s way. I don’t want to have to summon Vogt every time you two meet eyes. Are we clear on this?”

Then she stepped between the two of them, grabbed their hands, and brought them close.

Are we clear?” Gertrude asked again.

Begrudgingly, Victoria and Nile shook hands, neither making eye contact with the other.

No curses under their breath at least, not that Gertrude could detect.

“Anyway. I’ll describe the Expedition I am undertaking. Please hold your tongues until I’m done.”

And so, Gertrude began–


The Imbrian Empire officially dated its founding to A.D. 418 with the rise of Heitzing as a city-state in the northeastern Imbrium Ocean. Before this date, records were scarce, owing to a vast underwater conflict known as the “Age of Strife,” where Stations acted individually to cut each other off, sabotage each other, fight each other or steal from each other without an overarching authority– presumably after the ultimate fall of the remaining surface civilizations and total loss of contact. Owing to this mass hysteria and a resulting regression in society of hundreds of years, little was empirically known about the Strife.

Because of this, the Strife era was thought of as a sort of tribulation that ended in a miracle, where divinity graced humanity and saved them from assured extinction. There were a multitude of stories, myths, legends. Some of these were recorded into the remains of the early station computers which had lost much of their function due to civil collapse and neglect. It was from these accounts that Solceanism’s first precepts were drawn; as well as the only records of the origins of the first Emperor of the Imbrium.

Azazel Nocht I had a number of associated legends, but the most common was that he descended into what would become known as the Abyss of Nocht, now the site of the Imperial Capital of Heitzing, and from the abyss, he returned with the power to end the strife and unite the stations of what would become the Palatine state. By some accounts he pulled Heitzing from the Abyss, and this explained why Nocht’s Gorge had collapsed and shut. Others said he was graced by the divine and accepted as a God Emperor.

From Heitzing and the formation of the Palatine, the Empire expanded to encompass Rhinea (displacing declining Shimii kingdoms in the process), as well as Bosporus’ North and South (subjugating more Shimii, Loup and dark-skinned Bosporan peoples), to Buren to the northeast, with Katarre as the limit, and what would become Skarsgaard, or now the Holy Empire of Solcea (previously the Gallian Kingdoms and other small station-states.) Contact was made with the Vekan proto-state which was vassalized, and the Empire stabilized, slowed down, but eventually, expanded to the Nectaris to form the Colonies.

Azazel Nocht I crowned his own sons, establishing a dynastic line and creating the Imbrian Empire, but from 516 A.D., where the Empire first encountered the Republic of Alayze and went to war with them, records of Nocht I became scarce, and his dynasty took prominence. He must not have been a God, and thus met mortality. This is what was commonly accepted to have occurred and taught in schools.

Even with station computers and other such technology, time and political convenience eroded what was known and shaped what was thought. Over time, the Nochts became more divine than human, until they ceased to be either of the two. Eventually, the line of Nocht ended with the Fueller Reformation between 932 and 934 A.D. All record of the divinity of the Nocht family and their mythical exploits was expunged and driven from the public consciousness. Konstantin von Fueller, the first non-Nocht Emperor, struck the name of Nocht from the Empire itself, and declared that the “hypnosis” that the Nocht family had put over the Empire was now broken. The Nochts were mere men, and they had been defeated. The Engineers of the Fueller family brought about an age of secularism and materialist rhetoric.

But of course, hundreds of years of superstitions did not just die with one man nor with his family.

There still remained the mythical descent, etched into the collective imagination.

The Abyss continued to tempt the people of the Imbrium with its alluring legends of power and splendor. It had almost the same reputation as the photic zone, of a place where daredevil explorers could find mythical realms and lost islands of Strife era civilization to plunder. But such people were only legends. Outside of the Katarran mercenary culture and its tall tales, there were few successful stories of descent into the Abyss. Horrific beasts, sights so terrible they melt the mind of the beholder, disorientation and the threat of being spirited away– people who ventured into the abyss never came back. Or perhaps, it was easier to believe that if they came back whole and hale, then they never went at all and were lying.

Most of them were probably lying; but who could determine truth from fiction in such a situation?

The governments of the Imbrium, whose base of control lay in the zone of human activity, had let the Abyss rest unperturbed for hundreds of years. There was always a greater problem or a more lucrative venture right in front of them, between 1000 and 2000 meters– governments rarely saw need to venture further. Whenever they did, they sponsored some quackish expedition that was already dead set on doing so. If they came back, it was always in failure with nothing to show for it. If they never came back, it didn’t matter one bit. Even the secular Fueller regime had done little to stir the pot of Abyssal exploration, sponsoring ultimately less such trips than even the Nocht family, and publicizing none of them at all.

Perhaps that was the influence of a certain someone at play– someone who had experience in this realm.

According to Norn von Fueller, Kesar’s Gorge held a habitat below 3000 meters depth. Gertrude Lichtenberg believed staunchly that this habitat held her origin story, and perhaps the origin of her power. And she did not intend to stop there. Norn had taunted her to go even deeper into the Katov mass, and Gertrude intended to do so. This was her last gambit. She would retrace Nocht’s steps into the eldritch shadow that lay beneath humanity’s eternal coffin in the depths of the Imbrium. Come hell, high water, or madness.

She already felt like she had been through hell in spirit. So now she would sink in it, and rise again.


“Norn is just trying to get rid of you. She is sending you on a suicide mission.” Victoria bluntly said.

After a brief explanation of the history of abyssal exploration as Gertrude understood it, Gertrude laid out her grand ambitions for the trip to Kesar’s Gorge. Of course, it was immediately shot down by Victoria.

“Norn would not do that. We have a history together. I know her better than you.” Gertrude said.

Victoria briefly seemed to bristle at the idea. As if offended in a snap reaction to the second statement.

“You don’t understand.” Gertrude continued. “Norn doesn’t lie. She doesn’t feel the need to do so. Norn believes she is so powerful that deception is beneath her. If Norn wanted me dead she would have killed me. She thinks she’s above the law. She was being sincere, Victoria. There is something in the Gorge she wants me to find and I’m going to get it. And If I need to, I’ll turn it against her. That’s my goal here.”

Gertrude of course withheld that Norn delivered this information after nearly killing her.

That detail made Gertrude all the more certain that Norn was not cheating her.

But she had no ill will toward Norn and some part of her didn’t want Victoria to think ill of Norn either.

Some part of her was still a bit soft-hearted about her “Master,” to whom she owed so much.

She had to pretend that Norn was an antagonist– but deep down, she felt like she had wronged her.

“How has Veka’s abyssal exploration turned out? I’m genuinely curious.” Nile asked.

“I don’t need to disclose anything to you.” Victoria responded.

She was back to her emotionless and blunt tone of voice. Gertrude took this to mean she was calm.

However, she was still being uncooperative.

Nile meanwhile–

“The Sunlight Foundation has never ventured too deep into the Abyss.” Nile said. She gestured with a palm toward the floor. As if in response to Victoria’s uncooperative demeanor, she started an impromptu lecture that surprised Gertrude. “We have sent instruments into those holes which picked up all kinds of anomalous readings. It is difficult to communicate between the Abyss and the Aphotic Zone, and there are problems with navigation also. Euphrates and Tigris, two of my colleagues, have the most experience with such things, and even they limit their activity to no more than 3500 depth. For an outfit like ours, which has to be careful with the assets it is moving, there’s always something more important to do, relative to the effort. The Abyss is teeming with life that is only rarely agitated by human activity– they respond aggressively and view us as prey. Scientific expeditions cannot hope to survive. They must be accompanied by military assets. This massive ship might give us a ghost of a chance to succeed.”

“Um. Thank you for the disclosure.” Gertrude said. “I take it you’re invested in giving it a shot?”

“I’m uninterested in the Abyss.” Nile said. “I am only speaking as a Doctor hoping to mitigate what will be obvious harm. I am willing to offer the limited expertise I have in order to prevent possible casualties. Speaking of which, Trude, do you have a clinic aboard? I don’t believe I saw one open.”

Gertrude blinked at her. Ship’s clinics were established at the discretion of the commander, and–

“We have medics aboard, with the security team. They can administer first-aid. Our doctrine entails we should go to a Station or to a Hospital Ship after we have stabilized people for follow-up care. We’re an elite and fast-moving unit that gets a lot of requests, it’s not a good environment for long-term care.”

–she had never recruited a ship’s doctor to the Iron Lady. It had not seemed necessary before.

Inquisition soldiers could get care anywhere– until now, when that was impossible.

“You don’t have any stations or Hospital ships to go to now. Let me open a clinic here.” Nile said.

She wasn’t entirely wrong, but Gertrude was still immediately nervous about the idea.

Victoria shot Gertrude a skeptical glare. Nile sounded quite invested in her request.

“At least let me give a health check to your crew. I bet they haven’t had preventive care in months. I’ll show you how much you need a doctor, and you can decide whether you approve of my care or not.”

Gertrude glanced at Victoria, meeting her suddenly evil-looking stare. She then looked back at Nile.

“It can’t hurt, I guess. You can set up in one of the meeting rooms to do check-ups, and only check-ups, with a limited selection of tools overseen by Security. Then I’ll evaluate whether to keep it or close it.”

Victoria crossed her arms. Nile wagged her tail more vigorously and smiled with her eyes again.

“So, then–” Gertrude tried to steer back to the main topic–

“Veka’s attempts to explore the Abyss have not been successful.”

Suddenly, Victoria spoke up. Arms crossed, eyes shut, cheek turned. Her own tail stood straight out.

“There are three Abyssal gorges in Veka, the Abyss of Temujin, the Abyss of Mansa and the Abyss of Hus. We sent small military expeditions into the Temujin and Mansa gorges down to 4000 meters. Both of which were attacked by Leviathans as well as buffeted by strange weather patterns and returned with damage and not much else to show for it. In the Abyss of Hus, we found the main base of this individual at 3000 depth and aborted our mission to go deeper.” It seemed this was the most polite way that Victoria could refer to Nile in that moment. “Then we tracked her down again to a smaller, lower depth site within an inactive subaquatic volcano. I am willing to disclose that it was not only that we desired to bring her to justice– we wanted to acquire someone who had real experience with depth sites.”

“You’ve got the wrong woman for that. You want Euphrates instead. Good luck.” Nile replied.

“Hence,” Victoria ignored her and continued speaking, “why I am here now, why I was chasing her, and why I have interest both in this individual but also in your expedition Gertrude. Not everyone has an Irmingard class dreadnought to spare for a journey like this. So it is beneficial for me to join you. Perhaps if you can uncover something valuable, I will rescind my intentions toward this individual.”

Gertrude felt her heart leap. That withdrawn cat had finally begun to cooperate!

“I am glad you actually opened up. It looks like everyone stands to profit here.” She said.

“Don’t get used to it. I’m only here to safeguard Vekan interests.”

Gertrude felt her heart tumble off a rooftop and crash into the street.

Nevertheless, at least everyone could finally agree that they wanted to be here now.

“Since it appears everything else is in order, the meeting is adjourned. You two have room assignments in the officer’s hall, get some rest.” Gertrude said. “I need some too. Your quarrel woke me up at like 0200.”

“Of course. A poor sleep schedule does explain your depressed countenance.” Nile said.

“I don’t care what you do. Just inform me if I’m required for anything.” Victoria said.

Without another word, Gertrude left the room feeling thoroughly exhausted by those two.


Depth Gauge: 2498 m

Gertrude shut the door to her room behind herself. She promptly dropped her coat on a nearby chair, undid her tie and the buttons of her shirt, and practically ripped her hair loose from its bun, and fell down into bed. Her black bra clung close to her swarthy olive skin, slick with sweat. She began feebly reaching around behind her back, but aborted trying to unhook the bra. She was completely wiped out.

Staring at the roof, at first without expression. Then, compelled as if by a mad passion to smile.

To laugh– to crack up into nearly sobbing laughter.

“What a farce! What a stupid farce!”

She raised her arm over her eyes, covering them with her sleeve.

“Do I really think I’m capable of any of this? Am I suddenly dreaming of being Emperor Nocht now?”

She was so exhausted. That burst of laughter felt like it took the last of her strength.

Unable to move, all she had was the ceiling above and her own wicked passions.

Gertrude was nothing more than a trumped-up military policewoman.

This enormous ship, all of her weapons and her crew, all of it was just from playing politics.

She hadn’t won any of it from just her strength.

Her weakness and helplessness frustrated her to no end.

Ultimately, she was just a coward. Hiding behind Norn without ever truly understanding her.

Without an Imbrian Empire, she was nothing. Her uniform meant nothing, and so she herself didn’t.

But it was not just the expedition that felt farcical either–

No. That was just the very start. Beneath the skin, everything about Gertrude was despicable.

“What rotten luck. Victoria is here too. God, I’m so pathetic. She reminds me of–“

Don’t even say it.

Don’t even think it.

Stop now. There’s only hurt down that way.

Gertrude laughed. Heavy on the bitter notes this time. Weak, sputtering laughter.

“What if I want her? Why can’t I have anything? Why do I have to lose everything?”

No response from that inner voice of self loathing.

After all, what did her mixed-up, wicked heart truly even want now?

Could she have Elena back?

Could she keep Ingrid?

Could she have–

Gertrude heard the door luck to her room slide open.

In a panic, she sat up instantly in bed–

Finding herself staring up from the edge, with legs spread and her shirt open, at Nile.

She had moved so fast that her vision was blurry, her brain rattled. She couldn’t believe this.

“I wanted us to talk alone.” Nile said. Her eyes scanned over Gertrude.

“I locked that door.” Gertrude said incredulously. Too confused to be upset.

Nile reached out and dropped a tube shaped thing with a trigger on it and a tiny screen.

“Masterkey. Creative name, isn’t it? Some irascible little woman made it. You can have it now.”

Gertrude realized how bad her posture was.

She closed her legs and held her shirt closed with one hand.

“I am this close to having you locked up in a black room for the rest of the journey.” Gertrude said.

“That would be a pity. There’s so much I can do for you after all.” Nile said.

God damn it, don’t respond to that–

Her body was instantly responding to it. But Gertrude still had her mind to resist with.

Even if her loins did stir–

“What the hell do you want? Ingrid’ll tear you apart if she notices you snuck in here.”

“That lovely lass in the next room over? She’s sleeping like a log. Relax. I am not here on any nefarious purpose. I just wanted to ask if you knew about Agarthic Weather. I have something for you.”

From her coat, she produced another object. It looked like a watch.

However, the face was completely different. Rather than numbers and hands, the face of the watch had a gradient etched into the back, and some kind of fluid trapped behind the glass. Gertrude had never seen anything like it. Nile dropped it on the bed next to the Masterkey without a second’s hesitation. She picked it up but no amount of observation could elucidate the true purpose of the little gadget.

“What is this? Couldn’t this wait until tomorrow?”

“That’s an Aetherometer. You can use it to tell the color and intensity of Agarthic Weather.” Nile said. “And I wanted you to be prepared. We’re already very close to the boundary line after all.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about!” Gertrude said.

Nile’s face looked like she was smiling behind her mask. Mysteriously pleased to be able to explain.

“Cocytus clearly didn’t train you. But I’ll oblige– our world has a layer of passively resonant emotional energy that is everywhere humans are, but invisible. This is called Aether. You can think of it almost like dark matter or the quantum world. It is observable with the right tools, but not with human eyes– most human eyes, anyway. But unlike other observable phenomena, which neatly conform to behaviors that can be documented, Aether can be as irrational as humans themselves are. Are you following me?”

In that moment, Gertrude could not possibly have responded. She was tired and aggravated and hearing nonsense which, indeed, not even Norn had ever spoken about to her. So she made no response to Nile’s sudden pseudoscience lesson beyond drawing her brows in and narrowing her eyes at the Loup.

“In the Abyss,” Nile continued, “the Aether exists in a state of agitation that has profound psychological effects on humans. It starts anywhere from 2500 to 3000 meters deep. I will make recommendations as to how to deal with the Weather once I see which color of weather we are going into, and you can use that Aetherometer to keep track of the weather and its severity, so you won’t be caught off-guard.”

Nonsense, pure complete nonsense.

She might as well have been whispering gibberish words like a baby.

And all the while Gertrude was trying to keep her own tits in her shirt–

“Get out of my room.” Gertrude said. “Get out. Right now.”

“As you wish. Perhaps I can accompany you some other time.”

Gertrude stood up from bed, but Nile retreated quickly with a little bow, the door locking behind her.

She stared at the locked door, briefly, her legs wavering under her weight.

Looking back at the bed with the aetherometer on it.

“God damn it.”

She lost her temper. And she was losing the battle she had been fighting with her own stamina.

“Ingrid is right. I’ve been running myself too ragged for too long.”

She practically collapsed into bed moments later, sleeping deeply and dreamlessly.

While on her bed, the fluid on the discarded aetherometer turned a pale blue.


Depth Gauge: 2540 m

True horror reared its head the next day, after a night that felt like a blur.

“I’m not even well rested! I still feel like crap!”

Gertrude put her head down against the cafeteria table. Her muscles ached, her head was pounding.

Opposite her, Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong reached a hand and brushed the top of her head gently.

In that moment, Gertrude’s heart was filled with love for that wild and beautiful brunette.

“There, there.” She cooed. “You’ll be okay. Why not rest your head on my lap?”

A lap pillow– the panacea which had cured the ails of many heroes.

Ingrid was an angel. Gertrude ill deserved her kindness.

However, she couldn’t be seen to rest her head atop Ingrid’s lean, alluring thighs.

Such a thing would call into question the High Inquisitor’s vigor and alertness.

Alas– Gertrude could have nothing. She truly was not allowed any happiness!

“Thank you. But I probably just need strong coffee. And something to eat.” Gertrude groaned.

“I’ll go get you some food. But stop whining. If you’re going to be pathetic then go all in on it and let me take care of you. This tiptoeing shit you have going on just ends up annoying me.” Ingrid said.

“I’ll rest on your lap when we’re out of this place.” Gertrude moaned.

“I’ve half a mind to break into your room somehow and make damn sure about it.”

Ingrid winked at her.

Gertrude looked up at her blearily.

“Please don’t sneak into my room. I have enough trouble with that already.”

“Huh?”

“Nevermind! Please get me some food and coffee, my head is killing me.”

“God. You’re being extra whiny today. Hopefully coffee is really all you need.”

Ingrid gave her a worried look before leaving for the cafeteria’s serving counter.

Breakfast that morning was a savory porridge with dried beef and frozen spinach mixed in, topped with a dab of margarine. It was rich, creamy, just lukewarm, imbued with a meaty flavor from having the dried beef and dry rolled oats cooked slowly in the same pot of reconstituted milk. It went down easy, just the sort of unchallenging dish Gertrude could really appreciate that morning. It was served with a side of “compote” that was essentially just tangy fruit mush as the frozen fruits disintegrated upon defrosting, and a piece of plain biscuit that had been steamed soft, presumably to spread the compote over.

Ingrid, however, had other ideas.

“Trude, where would you be without me? Here.”

She took the compote and dabbed it into the beef porridge before bringing the spoon into her lips.

Her tail wagged vigorously.

Gertrude mimed her and found the combination surprisingly tasty.

“You need to think outside the box more, Trude. Defy norms and shit!” Ingrid said.

She guffawed with a spoon in her mouth and Gertrude almost felt like kissing her.

Her smile, her enthusiastic unpretentiousness in both kindness and criticism– she was a treasure.

I wish I could feel like I haven’t lost anything just from having you.

It was a sick thought that sawed her heart in two. But she couldn’t help thinking it.

Along with the meal, Ingrid had brought her a strong black coffee.

Gertrude practically downed the whole thing as if hoping to drown her thoughts.

“Whoa! Jeez. I didn’t know you were such a coffee freak. I’ve never seen you tear into alcohol that enthusiastically.” Ingrid said, watching with wide-eyed horror as Gertrude drank and drank.

Immediately after putting her glass down Gertrude felt an immense headache.

But the dagger with which she had stabbed her brain had quieted her evil thoughts.

She did feel much more alert too.

“I’m fine.” Gertrude said, through a slight bodily tremble. “Let’s check in at the bridge.”

“Alright. But hey– is something the matter?” Ingrid asked.

She stood up and followed Gertrude along the Iron Lady’s halls.

While they walked, Gertrude thought of how to put her feelings delicately.

“Victoria van Veka is an old school friend of mine.” Gertrude said. “She and I and Elena von Fueller went to school together. I was horrible to her in the past. It was rather painful to get her cooperation now.”

Gertrude expected the worst after mentioning the circumstances to Ingrid. It might have stoked her envy.

But her bristly-tailed lover was not offended or threatened by the sound of it.

“You can’t take back bullying her in school or whatever the hell you did, and you won’t ever change her mind if she doesn’t want it.” Ingrid said, with casual ease. “It sucks, but you can’t go back and change it. Nothing you do in the present will make the past hurt less. All you can do is ask for forgiveness. Tell her you want to put in the effort to mend things, and ask her if there’s anything that can be done.”

“What if the answer’s no?” Gertrude said. It felt like an immediately childish question.

Ingrid smiled gently. “Trude, I know really, really well what it’s like having something you can’t take back and that you will never, ever be forgiven for. It’s fucked– but you have to live with it. Be happy for her; she’s alive, and she moved up in the world. And then carry on your own way with your chin up.”

Her words brought to mind the episode with the Antenora’s crew. Gertrude remembered the insinuations made by Norn’s subordinate, Yurii Anneccy Samoylovych Darkestdays, that Ingrid’s family had killed their own kind, and particularly, killed southern Loups. This was different than what Gertrude had gone through. While the scale was monumentally different, it was also the case that Gertrude was personally responsible for her own troubles. Ingrid was damned not by her own sin, but her grandfather’s crimes. Her response to that accusation was unfortunate, but it had been Samoylovych’s intention to needle her about it. Among Loup, maybe Ingrid had to deal with that situation so much, she could only get angry. Maybe that same scenario over and over drilled into her head that there was nothing she could do.

Gertrude had made her mistakes with her own hands, and would have to carry the weight of them. But that advice was still resonant. She felt gently happy that Ingrid had demonstrated such sympathy to her, even though her worries felt so pointless and childish. Ingrid was right– whether she could mend things with Victoria or not, Gertrude would have to live with the result. There was nothing else she could do.

If Ingrid could live with the legacy of her grandfather’s murders–

Gertrude could survive Victoria’s disdain.

“Ingrid, you’re really strong, you know that?” Gertrude said, smiling at her lover.

“Of course I do. I’m extremely sexy too.” Ingrid laughed. Her tail started wagging incessantly.

“I’m extremely lucky to have you by my side.” Gertrude said.

“You are! Praise me more!” Ingrid laughed raucously.

God– she was so beautiful. Ingrid, Ingrid, Ingrid! Gertrude momentarily felt her troubles leave her.


Average days on the Iron Lady still found themselves subject to a background hum of anxiety.

It was the stereotype that sailors and mechanics are a little bit more personable and salt of the earth, and officers are either a bit more stodgy or far more eccentric; but on a Dreadnought, the whole affair was colored through the lens of an unshakeable elite status. For naval personnel, service on a dreadnought was “making it.” A dreadnought, with its thick armor and powerful guns, was the safest ship to be on. It was the most prestigious, often in a command position in its fleet group. And because it was the largest, it had better amenities. Sailors had actual ranks, and the best of the sailors slept four to a room instead of eight to a room. Chief mechanics and engineers as well as work managers had their own rooms.

There was better food and more of it. There was a gym, the showers had stalls separating them, there was a social area, people could take more personal belongings with them on voyages. There was more freedom and more luxury, relative to other vessels. All of these incentives gave the crew the feeling that their hard work was finally being rewarded. There were few dreadnoughts in service. There was stiff competition for these posts. They had made it; they had gotten to the peak of their sailing career.

With those rewards came an expectation. Elite status had to be maintained through elite work. Sailors were expected to maintain a spotless standard of maintenance on the ship. Service level expectations were prompt. A service ticket could never “wait,” even a second. Preventive care was of the utmost importance. Not one centimeter of the ship could be overlooked. Meanwhile, officers had to be exemplary. Service on a dreadnought was such a sought after and exclusive position that an officer who made a mistake could be replaced by thousands of others that might not. Officers were expected to be highly experienced, experts in their fields and stations, with the most developed military thinking.

Orders could never be questioned. You made it to the peak; you followed along or fell from it.

Backchat was for low ratings on Frigates, dime a dozen people on dime a dozen vessels.

That expectation was not always fulfilled, and failing to live up to it was not always punished. It was said that Gertrude Lichtenberg ran a tight but compassionate operation in the Iron Lady. Because she valued long term stability, she only discarded flagrantly abusive people or those with unsalvageable failings. She did not see herself as having a crew that was elite in and of itself, but that became elite through hard work and demonstrated its status by growing stronger and tighter throughout its operations.

Nevertheless, that did not diminish the existence of that expectation. Walking down the halls was not like seeing happy faces in a station hallway, but almost like a line of students on a permanent examination period. Focused expressions, nervous expressions, confident but inwardly contrite expressions. A low hum of anxiety– this was the public life aboard a dreadnought, as one crossed the halls to and from work.

But everyone had friends, everyone had moments where they could privately let themselves be a little silly or a little loose. They were in this together, and trying to help each other succeed. Having good friends made up a good crew, and a good crew didn’t lose any of its members to outside recruitment. A good crew stayed together and grew together, and that was the feeling within dreadnoughts as well. This camaraderie protected the individuals by protecting the group, and kept everyone honest. Pure social climbers existed, but they risked shaking apart a stable house for the rest, and were not well liked.

Gertrude Lichtenberg and her closest confidantes shared such moments of lighthearted camaraderie.

They were not alone in doing so– perhaps it was the actual truth, that everyone on a dreadnought was a bit eccentric, but that everyone, also, could put on a strong face and get their work done when needed.

Perhaps the same could be said of all people, writ large.


On the bridge, the main screen had a split view.

One half had an expanded picture from the conning tower cameras. Outside the ship, the environment, wherever it was lit by the ship’s spotlights, had turned an unexpectedly deep blue. Gertrude had expected that with the katov mass density, everything outside would look red. One could still see the thick cloud of particulate matter all around the ship, but it was a deep, almost algal blue, like staring into a growth tank. On the port side of the ship, it was possible to see the distant, vague shadow of the rocky gorge wall.

On the other half of the main screen, there was a topographical map generated by sonar and laser imaging. It showed the Iron Lady as a wireframe object within a simulation of the gorge, to allow the crew to gauge its position relative to the surroundings. There were a few objects in the gorge with the ship. At that moment, they were maintaining 2500 depth. 500 meters below them in the murk, and a kilometer east, there was an object which was floating in the middle of the gorge. At 3500 depth, there was an object that appeared to be wedged into the gorge’s wall. At 5000 depth, the gorge widened, and there was a seafloor, but 2 kilometers farther east, there was a hole through which they could descend further.

“Inquisitor, Sotnyk.” Karen Schicksal greeted Gertrude and Ingrid, stifling a little yawn as she did.

On the center island seats, Captain Dreschner covered his mouth, yawning as if infected with it.

Throughout the bridge, everyone seemed a little bit fatigued and less alert than normal.

“Not just me, huh?” Gertrude asked. “Pass around vitamin drinks to everyone.”

Their vitamin jelly drinks not only contained vitamins– in fact they had more caffeine than vitamins.

“Yes ma’am. Good idea. I’ll call the kitchen.” Schicksal replied.

Gertrude and Ingrid climbed the steps to the center island and stood next to Dreschner, looking over the main screen. Ingrid whistled, impressed by the depth of the gorge, and the objects within it. Certainly, Gertrude never thought she would be down here, and she had never thought it would look blue. It was almost beautiful to behold, though truly there was nothing to actually see. All that beautiful color was just murky water and contaminated biomass wafting up from the abyss. It was a cloud of beautiful emptiness.

There was something out there, just beyond Gertrude’s reach. Centimeters from her fingertips.

That emptiness had to mean something. It had to contain something she could not see.

Otherwise, her entire life up to this point had led her to nothing, and she would die with nothing.

“What’s the situation so far, Captain?” Gertrude asked. “Anything dangerous?”

“No leviathans quite yet.” Dreschner said. He pointed at the map. “We’ve found two points of interest. There appears to be an 80 meter long metallic object below us. It could be a derelict ship. Might be worth looking into. There is additionally a larger object farther below, which may be what Norn the Praetorian desired you to find, Lady Lichtenberg. From what we can see, the exterior is at least 100 meters across and 50 meters tall. It is embedded into the gorge wall, so there is likely more to it than we can see.”

“Why is everything blue? Isn’t all that stuff out there just katov gunk?” Ingrid asked.

“Affirmative, Lady Jarvelainen.” Dreschner said. “You are correct, everything we are seeing is still shrouded in ordinary Katov mass. It has become blue instead of red, and I can scarcely imagine a reason why.”

“Is still just acting like Katov stuff normally does? Nothing is different?” Ingrid’s ears folded a little.

“As far as we have observed, it is exactly like any other cloud of Katov mass based on its turbidity. The Katov scale is still accurately predicting laser and visual fall-off. It is simply blue instead of red.”

Hadn’t there been something about blue–? It was just off the edge of Gertrude’s memory.

“It’s kinda creepy, you know?”

“Indeed. But it is still predictable, at least.”

Despite Ingrid’s lower rank, the Captain treated her respectfully as a courtesy to Gertrude.

Ingrid and Gertrude were common enough companions aboard the ship. Even before they started having clandestine trysts. Everyone knew from observing them that they were good friends and they never hid this aspect of their relationship. But Dreschner was keener still– if anyone suspected the depth to which Gertrude favored her loyal Sotnyk, it had to be him. Thankfully, he would never air such thoughts.

“What’s the scale of the mass out there?” Gertrude asked.

“At the moment, 200 Katov. We can expect worse to come.” Dreschner said.

“What’s our current speed of descent?” Gertrude said. “I’m surprised we aren’t deeper yet.”

“I ordered the helm to limit our speed to a small handful of knots.” Dreschner said. “The Iron Lady is such a large vessel that we wouldn’t have time to correct any mistakes if we descend quickly. Visibility, communications and detection are all going to get poorer and poorer, so we need to be careful.”

“I don’t want to spend more time here than we have to. But your concerns are valid.” Gertrude said.

“At our pace, we can reach the derelict or the suspected habitat in an hour or three.” Dreschner said.

“Alright. Let’s go look at the nearest object first then.” Gertrude said, without much hesitation. She understood the concerns and deferred to Dreschner’s experience here. “If it’s a derelict then we need to see what the status of its core might be. I don’t want to leave a ticking time bomb out here.”

“I was going to suggest that as well, Inquisitor. I will inform the helm of our course.” Dreschner said.

While they talked, Ingrid stood off to the side, arms crossed, tail wagging gently, staring at the screen.

“I’ll leave it to you. I’m going to go check on the hangar crews. Ingrid, coming with?” Gertrude asked.

Ingrid yawned a little. “Of course. Let’s grab one of those vitamin drinks before we go though.”

“We’re all at 10% battery, aren’t we?” Gertrude said. “Captain, tell the crew to relax a little.”

Dreschner nodded solemnly. “I know they will appreciate a more measured pace. Thank you, milady.”

Gertrude could not afford for her crew to fall apart now. Especially not by her own hands.

They were so close, so tantalizingly close to a breakthrough. There was something down there.

She stared at the diagram of the gorge, at the small Iron Lady on the screen descending meter by meter.

There had to be something down in the dark. And she had to claim it and live to tell the tale.

Or else– everything was meaningless–


Depth Gauge: 2625

Down in the hangar, the crew had put up the gantry for Victoria’s Jagd, which was painted royal purple but otherwise appeared a fairly ordinary member of its class. Now the hangar engineers were engaged in the production of small spare parts using the ferristitcher and CNC machines located in the workshop near the shuttle bay. Melted down pieces from damaged equipment could be recycled to some degree in this fashion, making for new pushrods, bolts, pump parts for hydrojets, steel tubing, turbine blades, even bullets as long as there was available powder. They could easily ferristitch a whole assault rifle out of junk.

In this case, much of the junk had come from the formerly torn to pieces Jagdkaiser, which had been largely reassembled from Jagd parts. And now, much of the reconstituted junk seemed to be going into the Magellan, which had been its torso suspended, and the limbs separated to different parts of the hangar. Work seemed to have started on it. In front of the torso, Gertrude and Ingrid found Monika Erke Tendercloud, the small woman seated on the floor and looking up at the mecha with a drawing tablet in hand. She yawned audibly, and dropped onto her back, lying down. She then saw the arrivals looming.

“Oh, hello.” She said. Gertrude thought her voice sounded a little sad. Though perhaps she was just tired.

“Is everyone having trouble sleeping?” Gertrude asked.

“I think I just overdid it. I pulled an all-nighter preparing a work program for this thing.” Monika said.

Her cheerful, hopping around levels of energy were clearly gone.

Now instead, she fidgeted slowly with the tablet, drumming fingers on it, spinning the pen.

She pointed the digital pen from her drawing tablet at the Magellan’s torso.

“I’ve got plans to turn it into a cool super-robot.” She said.

Gertrude sat down on the floor next to her, unprompted, and looked up at the Magellan.

As if it was the most casual thing in the world, and it was. It was easy to sit next to Monika.

Ingrid stared at the two of them briefly before sitting down herself.

So that the three of them were all together on the cold floor, staring up at the enormous machine.

In the presence of company, Monika’s tail began swishing gently behind her.

“Monika, I wanted to apologize–“

“No harm, no foul.” Monika replied immediately, shutting Gertrude down.

Gertrude tried to quiet her instinctual doubling down on her own guilt, and accept Monika’s grace.

Still, she felt like she should make amends somehow. She would have to think of a way.

“Puppy, do you think Gertrude is good enough to pilot a third generation super-Diver?” Monika asked.

“Don’t call me that.” Ingrid grumbled. “I think she ought to stay in the ship, to be honest.”

“Your feedback is acknowledged, appreciated and discarded.” Gertrude replied.

“Go to hell.” Ingrid said.

“Manners, puppy.” Monika replied.

“You runt, just because you’re older–“

“Manners, puppy.” Gertrude added.

“I’m going to knock both your heads together.”

Monika and Gertrude laughed.

Eventually Ingrid let herself have a bit of a snicker toward the moment.

“I’m serious though. I want to know what you think of the Inquisitor’s piloting skills.” Monika said.

“Gertrude is a fancier pilot than me.” Ingrid said. “But she lacks aggression, so she can’t capitalize on it.”

“You have too much aggression.” Gertrude said.

“She’s a fucking pussy.” Ingrid finally said.

“Manners, puppy–“

“Gertrude, don’t even.”

For the slightest moment, Gertrude let herself loosen up a bit and laughed. She glanced at Monika.

“Monika, are you just joking, or do you have a plan to push this thing’s performance even higher?”

She was briefly excited– the Magellan was already so strong–

Suddenly, Monika’s ears drooped and her gaze went down to the floor.

To her surprise, she found the previously cheerful demeanor of her chief engineer quickly darkening.

“I was just joking. I’m not good enough to beat all the brains at Rhineametalle and Rescholdt-Kolt. Or this mysterious Sunlight Foundation of yours. But I think I can at least get it back to ordinary working order.”

“Hey, don’t put yourself down.” Gertrude said. “You’re fantastic, Monika. You’re a miracle-worker here.”

Ingrid wrapped an arm around Monika’s shoulder and pulled the woman’s head close to her own chest.

“Now who’s behaving like a puppy? Come on, you’re a huge brain. Biggest among the Loup.”

“I heard you brought one of them aboard, and that she was a Loup.” Monika said.

“What? Are you sulky because of that? No one is gonna replace our runt.” Ingrid said.

“I’m not a runt and I’m not sulky about that.” Monika said, averting her gaze.

“Nile is a medical doctor. She has no idea what to do with this.” Gertrude said, pointed at the Magellan.

Ingrid let go of Monika, who sighed and stared at her own feet.

“I was just thinking I’d like to chat with her about the cartridges. Pick her brain.” Monika said. “See what being a genius with the resources to make magic happen feels like. Their whole situation fascinates me. I wonder what they’re up to? Trying to make a difference in this horrible world– or making it worse?”

Of course– Gertrude should have known this could happen.

She knew Monika was a bit fragile when it came to her feelings, even though she was quite grown.

For Gertrude to have caused all this commotion to bring aboard a new scientist–

She should have considered how it would look to Monika.

“Nile will be around. You can always talk to her. But you’re worth ten of her around here.”

Gertrude reached out and fussed with Monika’s blonde hair, vigorously petting her head and dog ears.

Monika had an annoyed little expression but leaned into Gertrude’s hand a few times as she stroked her.

“Thanks for trying to cheer me up.” Monika said. “I’ve been feeling out of sorts. You can probably tell on my face, huh? I’ve been trying to get this thing fixed, but it’s been an uphill battle. All kinds of awful things have happened and I haven’t been able to do anything about it. Repairing the Divers isn’t good enough for me. I need to come up with more power. I feel awful about Baron von Castille too. I couldn’t even develop any kind of rapport with her, and she took the Grenadier. I– I should’ve done more.”

Gertrude could sympathize with Monika to such a degree that it almost hurt.

Those words sounded frighteningly like the ones swimming in the most toxic sludge of her own mind.

She felt guilty that all her failures were affecting the poor little woman, who had done no wrong.

“That Castille woman was a mess. It wasn’t your fault. She didn’t talk to anyone.” Ingrid said.

“I guess. I don’t know. It’s not enough for me to forget it like I had no involvement.” Monika replied.

“All of our tribulations are my responsibility.” Gertrude said suddenly. “I’m the one who failed.”

“Gertrude–“

“Monika, none of this reflects on you. I’m the one who has to–“

Monika closed her fists, averted her eyes, and then stood up just as suddenly as Gertrude had started.

“Gertrude, this ship doesn’t run on your own passion alone, you know?” Monika said.

And the way her words sounded, almost like a low growl, alerted Gertrude– she was mad.

“You can’t just keep saying ‘don’t worry, it was all my fault.’ You can’t keep pretending like all of us didn’t individually fall short of our own aspirations. We were all part of this. We failed in our roles. Trying to collect all our injuries on your own body doesn’t help any of us heal. It’s just frustrating, okay?”

Monika turned her back and walked away, half-running. Gertrude tried to say something, but felt Ingrid’s firm hand on her shoulder and pulled her back, forcing her to sit back on the floor and quieting her.

“Let her go.” Ingrid said firmly.

“But–“

Gertrude watched Monika storm off feeling an upswell of worry for the fragile little Loup–

“She needed to tell you that and she needs you to listen. Not to patronize her further.” Ingrid said.

“God damn it.” Gertrude put her fist to the floor. “That’s the last thing I wanted with her.”

“Monika doesn’t hate you, she’s just trying to help you. And she’s right.” Ingrid said.

“How is she right? She’s blaming herself! Did you see her? She’s so depressed!” Gertrude shot back.

Ingrid’s expression darkened.

“None of us feel proud of what’s happened since we left Vogelheim.” Ingrid said. “We fucked up, Gertrude, and now we’ve fallen from our big deal status to all of this mess. But you fucking piling it all up on your shoulders– it sucks! It doesn’t acknowledge that the rest of us are trying really hard to make up for that, and to work harder and keep this thing afloat. If it’s all your fault, where does that leave us? People who are only on this ship because you made a big deal for them to be here? And now we don’t have anywhere else to go, and can’t do anything to fix it? We don’t need this from you right now.”

Gertrude raised her hands to cover her face. She almost wanted to cry into them.

“Ugh.”

She couldn’t ever win, could she? Everything was always a fucking failure–

“Listen, I don’t want you to have a meltdown about this.” Ingrid said. “Just think about it, okay? Think about Monika’s feelings, and my feelings– not just your own for once. All of us admire you for achieving your rank, despite being just some bitch– that’s where we all want to be too. So you need to act like you deserve to be here, so that we can deserve it too. Anyway. Fuck– I’m gonna go– it’s my turn on standby. You should check in on that Sunlight Foundation creep you brought in. Keep yourself busy.”

Every word was like jamming a knife into the cracks of glass in Gertrude’s soul.

“Not you too–“

Gertrude mumbled. Ingrid fixed a sharp glare on her.

“What was that?”

“Nothing.” Gertrude sighed. She had to calm down. Ingrid was right. “Okay. I’ll see you later.”

“Yeah.” Ingrid said. “I’m not abandoning you, okay? But you need time to think. For Monika’s sake.”

Ingrid patted Gertrude on the shoulder twice, stood up, and left, waving at the Jagdkaiser’s mechanics.

Leaving the High Inquisitor seated on the floor with her cape collected behind her, hugging her knees.

Staring up at the hanging torso of the Magellan, still pockmarked with the battle damage Gertrude took.

“It’s frustrating for me too.” Gertrude mumbled. “I just don’t want the rest of you to hurt like this.”

There was nobody to hear it. Nothing but the machine that had fallen apart due to her failure.


Eventually, Gertrude did pick herself up off the floor and went to inquire about Nile.

The Iron Lady had an upper and lower tier of modules, and in the upper tier, near the bridge, there was a hall that had a dozen meeting rooms. After Nile expressed her intention to open a clinic and Gertrude accepted it, she had blearily told Dreschner to allow her to set up in a meeting room of her choice. Apparently, Nile had taken up two. One had much of its furniture pushed to the second, adjacent room, which had become a warehouse for Nile’s medical supplies. In the other, she was seeing patients.

Gertrude found the room because a portable LCD had been pinned to the wall with signage.

There was a hand-drawn logo of a sunburst, a streak of water, and letters spelling NILE’S CLINIC.

Below the name, it also read FREE HEALTH CHECKUPS!

Gertrude walked up to the threshold and knocked on the wall beside the door twice.

“Letting myself in, Doc.” She called out.

“Of course! I’m almost done here. I can see you next.” Nile said.

“Inquisitor? Ma’am?”

Inside the meeting room, everything had been removed except for a small table and a pair of chairs. Nile had a wheeled table beside her chair for her tools: a stethoscope and blood pressure monitor, a roll of measuring tape and a portable scale to measure weight, and a portable with a pen, acting as a digital clipboard. Seated on the second chair was Karen Schicksal, who was taken by surprise by Gertrude’s arrival and looked like she had gone pale with fright. Nile was taking her blood pressure at the time.

“The High Inquisitor’s appearance is causing your heart rate to spike immensely.” Nile said. “That’s not unusual since she’s your boss, but I just want you to know, this clinic is a safe space, and if you don’t feel safe at your job, I will do everything in my power to protect and advocate for you, Miss Schicksal.”

“Um! It’s really fine!” Schicksal said, putting on a fake, nervous smile. “She’s quite kind to me!”

Nile held Schicksal’s hand gently in both her own, which nearly caused Schicksal to jump out of her chair.

Stroking her skin, she cooed. “If I am allowed to continue operating, I’d like to discuss the possibility of a short term of anti-anxiety medications, just to see whether they help you cope with these episodes.”

“Episodes?!” Schicksal pulled at her own collar. “Uhh, ma’am, I’m fine! I’m truly fine, and alright.”

Gertrude stood by the door like a looming shadow and watched this play out without expression.

Once Schicksal had left, in a particular hurry, Nile jotted down something on her digital clipboard while patting the chair that Schicksal had just vacated with the palm of her hand. Signaling for Gertrude to approach. But for a while, Gertrude remained at the door, because she noticed that Nile was not wearing her respirator that morning. She also noticed another thing– that Nile was quite beautiful, with a delicately curved nose, a rosy-red gloss on her lips, a smooth jaw. Her features fit her striking eyes.

Her ears twitched slightly, and their eyes met briefly, contact which the Inquisitor quickly broke.

Gertrude’s gaze then fell upon and lingered on Nile’s neck, where her infection monitor–

–was brightly green.

“I already told you; you can trust me to be responsible. I’ve been living with this for decades.” Nile said.

“Right.” Decades?! How old–? “I just didn’t think– you’d discard the respirator so soon.” Gertrude said.

She raised a fist to her mouth and cleared her throat to avoid putting her foot in her mouth any further.

“I wear it the majority of the time.” Nile said. “But with new patients, I like to show them my face as a proof of my sincerity. Of course, if there’s even the slightest risk of infection, I will wear my mask.”

She patted the chair again with her hand.

“Alright, alright. I’ll get to see first-hand how you work.” Gertrude said.

Conceding, Gertrude sat on the chair. As she was arranging her cape, Nile shook her head.

“Take the cape off. And the coat too, I need better access to your body.”

Sighing, Gertrude’s hands went from the cape to its clasps, undoing it completely. She went button to golden button on her black coat, pulling it off the long-sleeved button-down shirt she wore under it. There was the visible impression of her back swimsuit top beneath– she did not wear lingerie under it. The underwear Nile had seen her in before was a result of being woken for battle past midnight.

Feeling surprisingly freer without the coat and cape, Gertrude let them fall on the floor.

Alight with a mixture of disdain and catharsis from the sound of them sliding off.

“Good.” Nile said. They were seated next to each other–

For the first time Gertrude realized how close she was and her heart skipped a little beat.

As Nile’s hand firmly took her own arm and ran fingers down the length of it.

“Keeping fit, that’s good. Lean and firm muscles, flexible, what I’d expect from a soldier.”

Her fingers traveled to Gertrude’s shoulders, to her neck– the Inquisitor grimaced–

“Can I touch your chest? I’m just trying to get a sense of your physique.” Nile asked.

“Um. Sure.”

Gertrude imagined Nile’s hands squeezing her breasts like stress bags–

But much like before, her fingers just ran across her chest and belly, gently but firmly.

“Raise your arms over your head.”

Gertrude did as instructed. Nile narrowed her eyes and shook her head.

“You’re so stiff.” She said. “Do you stretch in the morning? How long do you spend seated?”

“I guess I sit still for a lot of my day. I never really thought about it.”

“You need to get up more. Stand up, stretch your arms, back, waist and legs. Gently– don’t treat it like a workout. Every two hours or so, more often if you don’t feel any soreness when sitting back down. Honestly, you should take this opportunity to make this a crew standard. It’d help everyone.”

Her hands slid down Gertrude’s back. “Can I get the contour of your legs?”

“Um. Yes, just–“

Gertrude sat up straight as Nile’s hands squeezed briefly around her black pants at the thigh.

“Skinny, but lean. You need to incorporate leg exercises. I bet you also skip meals regularly.”

“I–“

Before the Inquisitor could defend her self-destructive work habits any further, she stiffened up again.

Nile had picked up the digital pen and tapped on one of Gertrude’s breasts.

“That’s why these stayed such a humble size.” Nile smiled at her, her tall dog ears shaking a little bit.

“HEY.”

“It does contribute to your handsome profile.”

Gertrude would have shouted more if Nile didn’t look so lovely when she was cheerful–

“You’re the sort of person who is pretending to be healthy while destroying herself behind the scenes. As your doctor, I’m going to make sure we take the last step together to actually leading a healthy life.” Nile took her digital clipboard and jotted down something. It was the sort of portable touchscreen device that could turn her vibrant swishes of the pen into neat block text on the page. “You have to eat 3 meals a day, of regular size cafeteria portions, and I am recommending a morning and evening snack that has protein but also a healthy fat content. Furthermore, you have to stand more. Moving your body is not something you should only do at the gym after work. Your body is very stiff and your posture is not helping.”

For a moment Gertrude felt extremely self-conscious of how she was sitting and straightened up.

“You can tell all that just by manhandling me?” She replied, fixing Nile with a critical stare.

“And from watching you move around and interact with people for a few hours.” Nile said. “I can make educated guesses as to your lifestyle from my own experience. You’re not the first person I’ve told this. I have been working with the most self destructive people on this planet for decades. Chasing them around about their health, whenever I had the chance to, has prepared me for practically any patient.”

“Fair enough.” Gertrude sighed. “You really are a doctor, huh?”

Nile stared at her blinking. “You thought I was joking?”

“I thought you were some mad scientist type, not a kindly pediatrician type.”

“What do you think now?”

Gertrude felt compelled to smile. “I’m still thinking.”

Nile smiled brightly back at her. She looked amused. “Then let us continue the assessment.”

Measurements and weight came next, then reflex tests on the knee. Throughout, Gertrude allowed Nile to move her around like a doll, posing her in whatever way was needed so she could observe everything she needed to and take down all of the data that she desired. Sit up, arms out, sit down, knees bent– there was something that warm and comfortable, almost liberating, about having someone’s close attention.

They had a very animated discussion as the assessment continued.

“How many people have you seen so far?”

“Twenty-six, with you. Mostly officers. Mind releasing some sailors to me soon?” Nile asked.

“I’ll think about it. Can I get a look at their assessments?”

“Denied. As their boss, you could use any healthcare data I give you against your employees.”

“I wouldn’t do that!”

“Doesn’t matter. Doctor-patient confidentiality is a pillar of medical work. Period, end of story.”

“I just want to know if anyone needs help.”

“That’s my job. I’ll recommend changes to the work process on the ship once we are done.”

“Fair enough. But I’m telling you– I wouldn’t use the information in a biased way!”

“I don’t care. Not everything is about you personally.”

Gertrude snickered to herself, feeling like she had found a weakness in this unshakeable woman’s facade. “I thought that you joined a clandestine organization to defy norms, and here you are insisting about doctor-patient confidentiality. Are ethics only important when they’re convenient for you?”

She was being childish but– damn it, she was allowed to be childish sometimes!

Nile met her eyes, confidently, firmly. “Ethics between people are important. Confidentiality engenders trust, which creates an environment of compassion, and allows medical work to be efficient and tailored to the patient. Legislating against good tools and bold projects, are just barriers to progress.”

“Are you pro-human experimentation?”

“An unfair and loaded question.”

“How so?”

“I believe a person, given the full context and understanding of what a procedure might do to their body, should be allowed to have it from a provider who will undertake it. That is the side of bodily autonomy that our biofascist society doesn’t want to accept, including yourself, asking that question.”

“Can you give a person a ‘full context and understanding’ of being experimented on?”

“You’re missing the point. They’re not being ‘experimented on’. You are treating it like an attack on them from a mysterious source. Yes, I can fully explain to a human person with full faculties, what a gene therapy drug or a new treatment tool could do to them. Then I can trust them to make a decision for themselves, and honor it. Especially, if the alternative is certain death or a lifelong disability.”

Nile withdrew her stethoscope and began to listen to Gertrude’s body, first on her arms, her back.

Gertrude felt a little shiver wherever the doctor touched.

“I guess that’s not really what I viewed as ‘human experimentation’.” She said.

“That’s your problem, and why it’s a loaded question.” Nile replied.

Despite her passion, Gertrude never got the sense Nile was angry at her for asking.

In the clinic, her tone of voice was always measured, she was always calm.

Unlike when their video call got a bit heated yesterday. Maybe it was her bedside manner.

Maybe she didn’t feel she was being judged by a complete stranger anymore.

Still, Gertrude felt a bit better being able to converse with her like this.

“Victoria said she found evidence of human experimentation, and you told Victoria that you experimented on yourself. I guess I imagined you might be drugging people or performing surgery–“

“–without their consent? Like some boogeyman with a scalpel, maybe kidnapping babies?”

Gertrude felt like an idiot for bringing it up. “I apologize. I put it in a sensationalized way.”

Was there any other way to think about the “Sunlight Foundation” but sensationalized?

How could an Imbrium-wide conspiracy to commit scientific and medical fraud be anything but?

Still, Nile’s gentle responses made Gertrude feel like the villain, made her feel contrite.

“I use my own cells as well as special stem cells to create organoids for first round medical testing.” Nile said. “These things are living organisms, but they are not ‘people.’ You can be disgusted about that if you wish, but they are important tools. I can create a beating heart, or a semi-functional brain, or some other individual piece of a body, and then I can infect it with disease and treat it with drugs, tools, therapies, without violating a person. Once I am more certain of the effects, I seek an affected individual to care for.”

Gertrude tried to hold her own tongue and not judge Nile for her approach.

Everything she said still sounded kind of disgusting. Gertrude didn’t fully trust her about all of it.

“Has anyone turned you down?” Gertrude asked.

“Yes. There are people who would rather die or suffer on their own terms. That’s the fault of our society.”

She sat Gertrude down, and pointed with her pen at her shirt.

“Open a few buttons and hold this to your heart.”

Nile handed her the contact for the stethoscope and Gertrude did as instructed.

Unbuttoned her shirt a bit, holding the end of the scope in place while Nile listened.

“Agitated. Your blood pressure is a bit high, but it might be a temporary spike due to anxiety. Next time I check up on you, we’ll avoid difficult subjects and I will ask you to relax alone for a bit before we take the reading. To be safe, I think you ought to make sure to drink water and take your breaks from work. Avoid salting your food further after it comes out of the cafeteria– your diet is likely high in sodium already.”

She was assuming that there would be a next time– and Gertrude found herself wanting it to be so.

Gertrude began to believe this woman was a real doctor, and a good doctor at that.

Finally, Nile was done the assessments. She had been jotting everything down on her touch clipboard.

“Stand up.”

Gertrude did as instructed. Behind her, the door to the room closed.

Nile also stood with her, and took a step forward.

“Can I embrace you, in a chaste, private and professional manner?” Nile asked.

It was in the same tone as her other instructions, but the request affected the patient differently.

In a moment, the Inquisitor found herself answering as if a dam had broken and her emotions spilled out.

Her reaction was rapid and unreasoning.

“Please.”

Then, just as quickly Gertrude found herself swept up into Nile’s chest.

Her arms around Gertrude’s back, one hand stroking her head, guiding her face to the doctor’s shoulder.

“You’ve had a very difficult time of things.” Her voice cooed in Gertrude’s ear. “All of that pain is inscribed on your body and blood. Tensions bound up like knots inside you. Because you’re the Commander, you can’t let yourself falter, so you keep everything shut tightly, and you don’t show it even to your friends. You’ve done well to come this far, and you are someone who is indeed strong and strong-willed. But I am your doctor; you can let yourself be honest here. Your doctor won’t tell anybody. You can cry, if you want to. Crying to a person, honestly and without judgment, can be different than crying to yourself.”

Gertrude hardly needed prompting. Hiding her eyes in Nile’s shirt, she was already crying.

Feeling the gentle hand stroking her hair, and the soft, sweet words in her ears.

She did vent her frustration, crying, gripping the woman hard, letting herself be lost in irrationality.

She did not know for how long, but Nile held her exactly as long as she needed.


Gertrude donned her coat and cape once more. Nile unlocked the door to the clinic again.

Despite how hard and for how long she cried, the Inquisitor felt curiously refreshed.

“You can run your clinic.” She said, unprompted. “Judging by all the yawning I’m seeing around, we do have need for a ship’s doctor, and you feel like a real doctor. I’ll have you formally inducted as a member of the crew when I can. You’ll be on a Chief Petty Officer’s pay scale to start with.”

“I don’t need a wage.” Nile said. “I just need food, lodging, sundries and medical supplies.”

“You’re getting a wage. Don’t be difficult about it. It’ll be easier to justify to Victoria.”

“Do you need to justify anything to her?” Nile asked.

“Just let me handle things and don’t cause me any more stress.” Gertrude said.

“Of course. Your health is my utmost concern. I will play along, then.”

Gertrude stared at her. Her skepticism had been fading, but was not completely gone.

“Is it really your utmost concern? You’re not thinking about escaping?”

Nile immediately smiled at her and wagged her tail. She looked her most girlish, almost innocent.

“Escaping? Not at all! Initially I was desperate to prove my value so I wouldn’t be imprisoned– but after today, I’m simply happy to be working on a ship again. Research environments, particularly the ones Sunlight Foundation Immortals have set up for ourselves, are lonely and sterile places. I forgot how good it feels to care for living people. How motivating other people can be for me. I’ve been working in an isolated and antisocial way for so long– it’s good to have gotten out. Do I like the circumstances perfectly well? Not at all– but the work is good. So I’ll stay, earn your trust, and clear my name to you.”

Nile winked on eye and saluted with one hand. “Commander– I look forward to taking care of you.”

Such a coquettish little response– Gertrude saluted back. Laughing a little inside.

Outside, smiling in a professional, chaste and measured way.

“Glad to have you aboard, doctor.”

When Gertrude turned to leave, Nile exclaimed to herself and hailed her again.

“Oh! Inquisitor– did you wear the aetherometer that I gave you?”

Gertrude paused, and half turned to meet Nile’s gaze again.

“That thing you gave me when you snuck into my room? I want to forget that whole episode.”

She had left it in her bedroom, completely forgotten.

“It’s important. Right now, I believe a lot of the crew are becoming fatigued due to the Blue Weather.”

“Blue Weather?”

Nile put her fists to her hips. “You really retained none of what I told you?”

Gertrude had a snippy response. “It was late! I was in lingerie almost collapsing! Look, if the crew is fatigued, I’ll let Dreschner and Schicksal know you have authority to issue nutritional supplements and raise concerns as ship’s doctor. Work with them to adjust the work schedule. You can debrief me about your color theory later. We’re about to embark on a mission and I need to be available.”

“Ya Allah!” Nile groaned, momentarily lapsing into Shimii-speak. “You need to work on that stubborn attitude of yours– Fine then. I’ll do what I can about the crew without bothering you for now.”

“Look, I’ll be available later. Thank you for everything Doctor. I have to go.”

“My pleasure.”

Folding her ears with a bit of a sigh and a bit of shrug, Nile let Gertrude leave the clinic.

It had been close to two hours since she left the Bridge and she felt a sense of urgency.

They must have been close to the “object” by now. Gertrude started running in the hall.

By the time she arrived at the bridge, Gertrude found Victoria standing by the center isle–

–and something enormous on the main screen that was captivating all eyes on the bridge.

“We were just about to call you, Inquisitor!” Schicksal said. “Look there!”

Gertrude stood off to Victoria’s side, staring up at the main screen, taking in the picture.

“It’s an anarchist ship. Look at that rough marking on the hull.” Victoria said.

Just ahead of the Iron Lady’s spoon-shaped prow, there was an Imperial cutter, close to 80 meters in length, holding depth but unmoving. A pair of jet anchors led from it into the marine fog, and judging by the stiffness of the cables, they had dug into the cliff wall about 150 meters to the left. One of its fins was turned up and the other down for no particular reason. Its 76 mm single gun turret mounted on the deck was pointed backward from the prow as if aiming for its own conning tower. On the hull, where the flag of the ducal or station patrol fleet or the specific naval insignia might be found, the old livery was scratched out. In its place, there was a rough red A within a circle and framed by a drawing compass.

“Have we had any contact with them?” Gertrude asked.

“We tried. No response.” Schicksal said. “What’s eerie is that we can ping the ship and get an automated signature packet back from the acoustic router, so the ship has electric power but the crew isn’t communicating even in the simple ways. For a derelict, we would expect nothing back, and if there’s people to rescue, and operational systems, we would receive an SOS back. It’s– It’s kinda scary.”

Gertrude looked back at the screen. She had expected a derelict, but not like this.

An unresponsive but operating anarchist ship, stuck in place amid the blue biomass.

Not what she had come into the abyss for– but maybe something she should have been expecting.

“Are you planning to board it?” Victoria asked.

“I am. I want to see what happened to them. So we can avert it here.” Gertrude replied.

“Good. I will join the boarding team then. No objections.” Victoria said.

An alarming declaration, but there was nothing Gertrude could do to dissuade her from this course. Not with the determination on her face. All she could do, then, was to join the boarding party herself as well. Because the Cutter was tight, the boarding party would be small. It might just be the two of them, even.

Delving into the bowels of a ghost ship in the Abyss. What could possibly have happened?

Depth Gauge: 3002 meters
Aetherometry: Blue (SEVERE)


Previous ~ Next

Sinners Under The Firmament [9.5]

Maryam Karahailos crossed her legs, seated atop her bed in Sonya Shalikova’s room, and laid her hands on her outer thigh. She shut her eyes and saw a swirl of color behind her sealed eyelids. Predominantly red and black like latticework, with lightning bolts of yellow and green and a rolling blotch left by the LED clusters on the roof, swimming over the rest, meandering between colors. She took a deep breath, focusing on the physical feeling of her lungs filling, her stomach pushed down, her chest rising.

It felt like she was becoming decoupled from context, existing only as sensations.

She let those colors dance in front of her eyes unmitigated. Like everything, those colors were created by something, and that order would soon enough enforce a pattern that she could follow. In time, those colors became roads, they began to lead to something, constructed of their own. They went on winding paths that had meaning. Maryam’s body became a thing of air, a thing of flesh without the weight of bone, a thing no longer seated in its place but able to fly like a kite through the colors of Aether.

What are you looking for?

Faiyad Ayari’s voice. This was the realm in which he now existed. A shade in the Aether.

His voice gave her form again in flight. She was a purple-haired, pink-skinned katarran girl.

He was a Shimii, lean, long-haired, with the soft and pretty face of the peak of his youth.

They were standing amid the colors, which floated like jellyfish and turned like worms.

“Norn is moving, Majida is close by in Khaybar, I’m here– and I think Elena–”

Maryam was almost talking to herself. It was difficult to piece apart herself and Him sometimes.

“Are you looking for the Apostles?”

“I just want to confirm, so I can tell them.” Maryam said. Her tone took on a hint of sadness.

“Tell them?”

“I’m supposed to be helping them. Helping Sonya. I want to find information for them.”

“You don’t owe them anything. They lied to you! They promised you safe passage–!”

“I lied to them; but it doesn’t matter. I’m staying for Sonya. She and I are partners now.”

His expression darkened. He was no longer any part of her in that moment.

He was cleaving himself from her, separating his thoughts from hers.

So that he could make her do things. Manipulate her.

“Maryam you have to leave this place. It’s dangerous. You will die or be killed by them.”

“No, Faiyad. I’m not like you. I don’t abandon people that I love to save my own skin.”

Faiyad Ayari grit his teeth. He closed his fists. His ears and tail bristled with anger.

In Maryam’s recollection of him, he was dressed in robes, priest’s robes, prophet’s robes.

King’s robes from a time just after the four Shimii Apostles led their people below.

A lesser king with little respect from his people in the modern era, but nonetheless a king.

He was used to getting his way. He was used to control. His power was made for it.

“I will not let you slander me. If you won’t cooperate, I will take control of you Maryam.”

Maryam waved her hand, and a current of air smashed Faiyad Ayari’s chest.

He tumbled backwards across the void, dragged by air as if fighting against ensnarement from a giant squid’s tentacles. His hands struggled with nothing, wind gathering around his fist to retaliate but unable to disperse the writhing shackles which Maryam had created. In his frustration with the grappling thing he cried out, his voice broken like a crying child’s. Maryam watched him with grim eyes.

“I’m stronger than you now.” She said. “You won’t ever make me do anything again.”

Her words came with a secret mourning.

She remembered being a scared and aimless child who knew nothing of the world.

When he first spoke to her, she was able to take her first steps to being free.

To becoming herself: and not simply a navigation aide for the warlord Athena.

Not simply a captive of Millennia Skarsgaard nor a pawn of the Sunlight Foundation.

She could not deny– that he did help her escape from such things.

Now she had to escape from him.

As she watched someone who had cared for her once, now struggle and curse her.

Secretly mourning, but ready to commit violence against him.

“Why?”

He gave in to the ensnarement, finally, allowing the wind to pin him to the ground.

His words came out as defeated whimpering as Maryam overcame him.

“Why am I always defeated? God is with me! God has always been with me!”

Maryam closed her fist.

“I am innocent! No– I am the victim!”

He was growing hysterical as his aetheric form weakened under Maryam’s attack.

“I’m sorry.” She said.

He screamed one final time as Maryam crushed his aetheric form.

Colors blowing out of him in every direction like blood spatters until he melted into a puddle.

A splash of red, yellow and black seeping into the surroundings.

This was not the end between the two of them– there wouldn’t be an end to that.

She was born the Apostle of Air.

And because of Faiyad Ayari’s will to keep running, he would haunt her forever.

From the beginning of the Shimii’s history, to his great betrayal, to the present day, forever.

Always running, from death, from justice, from the curses upon him.

“You encouraged me to run, and to keep running from pain and violence and bad things, Faiyad. But I’ve found a place I want to stay, and that I will not run from. If you can’t accept that, then I will crush you as many times as it takes. Your past is not a thing that Maryam Karahailos can run away from. I will stop running and live my own life. Sonya wants to be together with me despite everything.”

She smiled. She wished that that smile could somehow reach him– but she doubted it.

Maryam Karahailos was a big girl now. She had found love and a place where she could fight for her own dreams. She was not running anymore. And so, full of that determination, she sat back down, and sought the paths of clairvoyance anew without Faiyad’s interruption. Feeling in the aether for myriad truths.


Sonya Shalikova was discharged from the medbay after an overnight observation and headed back to her room. Her footsteps and posture carried a sense of airy joy and also a sense of trepidation. She hesitated in front of the familiar sliding door, wondering if she would be in there waiting. Usually, she was– and Shalikova had been annoyed by her persistence at first, tell her to calm down or be quiet. But–

–but now Shalikova wondered whether her girlfriend, her partner, was waiting for her.

She felt a warmth in her chest at the thought, but also a quiver in her shoulders.

Things would be different from now. It was a bit crazy to think about it.

They had only met a few days ago!

She was a civilian from the Empire that Shalikova was supposed to protect!

And she had a few secrets– some of which Shalikova knew could even be dangerous!

She was overthinking things, but she couldn’t help doing so. It was just how she was.

All of her heart and soul still loved Maryam Karahailos, no matter what.

That was the truth that her keen eyes could no longer shut out.

Waking up from a medicine-induced sleep in the medbay bed, Shalikova had missed her warm smile, her sunny little voice, calling her ‘Sonya’ so eagerly every morning. She missed the relentless affection. She felt like she couldn’t live without it now. She was being selfish, she thought. This was a military mission, it was her duty, she couldn’t afford to get distracted– but Maryam had become someone that she fought to protect, someone who made her want to return alive with all of her power to see her again.

“I’ll tell the Captain properly sometime.” Shalikova told herself.

For now, however, all that she needed was just her and Maryam.

Maybe Maryam was as scared as she was– but they would explore this new future together.

Shalikova crossed through the doors and tried to smile.

She did not greet the purple-haired, pink-skinned, tentacled girl in the black, long-sleeved habit, however. Maryam was seated on her bed with her legs crossed, eyes shut, and arms at her sides. Her chest stirred gently, her breathing was steady. She looked like she fell asleep sitting, but the position made Shalikova think that this was deliberate on her part. Was she meditating or something?

In an instant, Shalikova mentally switched on the psionics Maryam had awakened in her.

Maryam’s aura was a stark white. There was a texture to it like a breeze caressing skin.

Her expression looked exceedingly peaceful.

Instinctually, Shalikova had matched the white aura color to “euphoria” or “joy” but there was also a sense of the divine, to it, or perhaps more accurately the sublime. She felt that it was not necessarily a positive emotion, but an alien state that could be provoked by witnessing the awe and mystery of psionics. There was a sense that a part of Maryam wasn’t there, but not in a dangerous way. She was traveling, maybe. Dreaming. That blowing breeze, and the calm that she evoked, led Shalikova to feel she would be safe.

Her gut feeling was that this was not a dangerous state to be in, but it was also not normal.

Psionics was complicated– it had introduced a lot of complicated feelings to her life.

None as complicated as this purple marshmallow herself evoked, however.

Whatever it was that she was doing, Shalikova wanted to support her.

So quietly, and gently, so as not to disturb her, Shalikova sat down beside her.

She laid her hand atop one of Maryam’s own and closed her own eyes.

Not trying to do anything particular– her own psionic mind was completely dormant.

Just taking a moment to close her eyes, listen to the hum of the air circulator, and relax.

Beside someone that she had grown to love a lot more than she ever imagined.

After a few minutes, she heard: “Oh! Sonya! How long were you waiting?”

Shalikova, smiling and amused with herself, opened one eye, and looked at her side.

She found Maryam’s W-shaped pupils staring back at her from dark, wide-open eyes.

“Not long. Don’t worry about it.”

Maryam and Shalikova both stood up, turned to face each other, and immediately averted their gazes. They had moved with such synchronicity that they were both embarrassed by it. Now that she was face to face with her, Shalikova was feeling just a little bashful. She couldn’t blow her off anymore– when she looked at Maryam, she was actually, truly captivated with her beauty. She was the prettiest girl in the ocean. From the fins atop her hair to the tentacles among the purple strands, her exotic eyes, her gentle face with her small nose, soft lips– Maryam was so beautiful it made Shalikova’s blood run hot.

“Maryam, uh, how’ve you been? Did you get along fine last night?”

“Everything was fine. I was discharged shortly after you got admitted.”

Both of them turned back around and looked each other in the eyes again at the same time.

Chromatophores in Maryam’s skin briefly flashed a white and grey wave across her body.

Then they settled on a redder pink than Maryam’s usual skin color.

Shalikova felt stupid for all the feelings rushing to her head–

–but even stupider for keeping so quiet!

In a rush of nervous energy, she stepped forward and took Maryam’s hands into her own.

“Maryam, I meant what I said to you yesterday! It wasn’t just that I’d just come back from battle and was acting crazy, okay? It wasn’t random! I really want you to be my girlfriend! I’ll tell the Captain and our relatives properly– I guess just Illya and Valeriya for me– but yes– I’ll do everything properly!”

Did Maryam even have family Shalikova could “properly” talk to about dating her?

Words had come tumbling out of her lips with barely a thought–but she managed to say it.

Maryam looked at her for a moment, her head fins slowly firming until they were entirely upright. Starting with her cheeks, Shalikova could see in slow motion as the individual tiny cells of her chromatophores turned from pink to red in a wave that ended on her nose and around her mouth. With her hands squeezed inside Shalikova’s own, she began to smile, and then narrowed her eyes and began to giggle. Her face was turning red as a tomato, but she looked very amused and laughed gently.

“I’m serious!” Shalikova said, her heart wavering, briefly mortified. Did she offend her–?

“I know you are, Sonya! You’re always so serious! That’s a very charming part of you!”

“What do you mean?” Shalikova was turning red also. “What do you mean ‘you know’?”

“I’d love to be your girlfriend Sonya! And you can be my girlfriend too!” Maryam said.

“Okay! Well– fine then! I guess it’s just settled and we can– we can stop being bothered.”

“Oh I’m going to be bothered for a good long while I think.” Maryam said, still giggling.

Shalikova averted her gaze again and slowly peeled her hands off Maryam’s own–

–off Maryam’s own soft, comforting, extremely squeezable little hands.

I love her so much. God damn it. I’m such an idiot. I’m– I’m your idiot now, Maryam.

“Don’t worry Sonya, things don’t have to change much. You just have to kiss me now!”

Maryam sounded like she intended it as a little joke, but Shalikova still took her chance.

Before Maryam could take it back, Shalikova leaned in, grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her into a kiss. Hungrily, more than she imagined she would be, Shalikova took those soft, inviting lips into her own. Maryam’s w-shape eyes opened wide; once again a wave of colors flowed across her visible skin, but even more chaotically, now a gradient of every possible color rushing in every direction as opposed to a tidy wave of white and grey. For a moment, she was a strobing rainbow caught in Shalikova’s lips.

Shalikova parted from her and reopened her eyes just in time to see Maryam’s surprise.

“As long as you keep being this cute, I’ll keep kissing you!” Shalikova declared.

Nonsense, she instantly thought. I am saying pure idiotic nonsense.

Once Maryam recovered enough, she began to giggle again.

Despite her sheer embarrassment, Shalikova could not help but join her laughing.

She put her forehead to Maryam’s own, still holding her shoulders, and they laughed.

“I love you Sonya. Thank you– thank you for having feelings for someone like me.”

“Hey, don’t put yourself down. What’s this ‘someone like me’ business? You’re amazing.”

“Sonya– Well, I– I’m a–”

“Do I need to kiss you again? How many times, until you get it?”

Faces mere millimeters from each other, looking eye to eye, the two of them laughed again.

It was something Shalikova had never felt before.

A mix of love, pride, desire, a gravitational pull– attraction.

It was not like any love she had ever experienced. It was not how she felt toward her comrades or toward Illya or Valeriya, or even how she had felt toward her sister. And her taciturn and withdrawn nature made some part of her want to reject this new kind of love. It was irrational, it was distracting, she had a mission, she had no right to be happy— but that last voice, that cruel thought, she quieted with great force. She understood, she really, finally understood now, that her sister would not have wanted her to be unhappy. Her sister did not lose her life in battle to be mourned until Shalikova’s own passing.

Zasha would have wanted her to find her own meaning in lifting the Union’s torch.

They were fighting for what it meant to be human, to live with dignity, to live fully and passionately.

And for Shalikova, it was fine if part of that was fighting for the love she had found.

Shalikova lifted her hands from Maryam’s shoulders and pulled her into an embrace.

One hand behind her back, one hand around her head, feeling the silky softness of her hair.

“Sonya,”

Maryam embraced her back. Shalikova felt an inkling of her Katarran strength in that hug.

“When I first met you, I was really surprised and impressed by how sharp you were. It was a silly thing to be attracted to, and I knew it, but I thought that you felt really dominant and strong, like a Warlord. I wanted to be on your side, to avoid making an enemy of you. I still think that, too– I feel really safe with you. You are strong. I feel something great slumbering inside you. But I’ve also learned that you’re not like a Katarran warlord. You are kind and just, and you are always aware of others around you. Your eyes aren’t full of dominance, but actually full of empathy and maybe a little sadness and loneliness. That’s what I meant, when I refer to myself as unworthy– my feelings for you are really selfish and ignorant.”

Shalikova was briefly speechless. Maryam looked at her, craning her head just a little bit.

“I want to make you happy, Sonya. You listened to my dream, and you didn’t tell me it was silly or impossible. I know you’ll help me chase after it– but I want to support your endeavors in turn. Those feelings are not as wonderful and selfless as yours, but they’re my genuine feelings. I love you, Sonya.”

Maryam showed a clear worry in those strange, beautiful eyes of hers.

Worry that she had revealed too much of herself, things that she had held back.

But Shalikova did not hate her for it– that was not possible.

“I’ll accept your feelings, no matter what. I’ll accept them for you, Maryam. I love you too.”

Shalikova smiled at her and Maryam smiled back, a visible relief softening her expression.

“And who knows,” Shalikova winked, “maybe I will prove myself as strong as a Katarran warlord.”

Maryam had a little laugh. She relaxed, clearly relieved that Shalikova saw humor in her perspective.

Some part of Shalikova was flattered. And she found Maryam’s feelings so incredibly cute.


Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa was a late riser, and even after waking, loved to spend at least an hour lying in bed before she stood up even once to truly begin her day. As one of the “perennial late-shifters” she was expected to come to the bridge later than the rest. Furthermore, the gunner hardly ever did anything aboard a ship. It was a job that entailed long and difficult hours in very infrequent chunks because combat was not an everyday occurrence. So it afforded her time to kick back and relax.

On most mornings, it was her and the portable terminal, and a massive collection of books.

Lying back in bed, holding the lightweight LCD screen, her face lit only by its dim light.

While she was in Serrano, she had restocked her supply of culturally relevant novels via the network.

She did not have the personal funds to transact in professional Imperial literature, but she knew that, just as in the Union, there was a vibrant culture of freely available and shareable independent fiction, and this was where she always struck gold. It was where the real treasure trove of fiction lay, where the actual and true artiste refused to self-censor their most lurid and sensual fantasies for mass appeal.

Recently she had started a new series of this type, “Blind Princess And Kind Retainer.” It was a fantasy story set in a world which was also underwater but had much larger and more beautiful stations than anywhere on Aer, which had lush vegetation and beautiful castles. Not exactly realistic, but she could suspend disbelief. In this world’s primary nation of Centralia, there was a monarchy, and the youngest daughter of the ruling family was a blind princess. Originally, Fernanda had been keen to see a story told from the perspective of a blind girl, but in reality, the primary point of view was the Kind Retainer, a young maid assigned to serve the Blind Princess. As such, it was a much more traditionally told story.

Fernanda continued reading despite her disappointment.

After all, even if the world and prose were not very original, the characters might save it!

And oh, did the characters save it.

As in many such stories, the Kind Retainer was a lesbian, or at least, interested in women. From their first meeting, she was taken in by the beauty of the Blind Princess, who, lacking the ability to correctly determine her own appearance, thought she must have been ugly, while her retainer must have been beautiful. It was a cute dynamic– maybe just a tiny bit ableist but Fernanda could set aside some small problematic details. They were a study in opposites, the Blind Princess preferring to keep to her quarters and listen to music or audiobooks while the Kind Retainer was very spunky. Because she was sheltered and fond of fiction books, the Blind Princess had odd speech patterns and mannerisms, which the Kind Retainer had been tasked by the royal family with disabusing their daughter of. However, the Kind Retainer was herself an odd duck, who enjoyed things like video games and tabletop roleplaying.

Both of them hit it off and went through many amusing scenes and misunderstandings.

Then, one night, as in all such stories, they both felt a shared drive for physical affection.

And finally, there was a scene from the Blind Princess’ perspective! It was the sex scene.

As the Kind Retainer undressed her gently, kissed her shoulders and neck, asked her where it felt good to be touched, traced her fingers on her skin– perhaps this scene was from the blind woman’s point of view so the author could be flexible with their descriptions. Clever use of prose, Fernanda thought–

“Hey, Fern, I’m coming in. It’s Alex. I’ve got permission so don’t freak out, okay?”

“GAMER?”

Fernanda shrieked at the top of her lungs, dropped her portable terminal on the bed and wrapped herself up in blankets as the sliding door suddenly opened. She had not been expecting anybody, so she was dressed in personal clothes– a frilly, gothic, nearly see-through black camisole and matching underwear with a winged pattern. Her makeup and blond hair also were not done– she was not ready for guests! But the door had indeed opened for Alexandra Geninov, so that could only have meant that– No–!

“What are you doing here? Explain yourself right now!”

She could have perhaps said that in a more refined way, but she was not being her best self.

Standing just a step inside the door, Alex was dressed in her company uniform, and had a suitcase of personal effects with her, along with an overstuffed gym bag slung over her shoulder. Looking as she usually did, tall and lean, almost lanky, her long brown hair tied up in a bun with a few bangs loose. She stared at Fernanda with a completely blank expression before moving toward the empty bed on the opposite end of the room and setting her things down on it. Fernanda began waving an arm in protest.

“Absolutely not! What do you think you’re doing? What has gotten into you?”

Alex turned to face her again. With her arms flat at her sides, she briefly averted her gaze.

Her light brown skin was developing a bit of spontaneous flushing.

“Why– why are you freaking out so much. We’re both girls, you can stop hiding.”

Even Alex realized immediately what a stupid thing to say that was.

Fernanda gritted her teeth and looked about ready to throw a pillow at her.

“That has nothing to do with it! Why are you in my room?”

“We’re roommates now. It wasn’t my idea, so please don’t hate me.”

“I don’t hate you–? WHAT–? No! I– I hate you!”

In a split second Fernanda seemed to go through every conceivable human emotion as she processed Alex’s words from the nearest to the farthest of that one very vexing sentence. She was so aggressive in her response she actually threw her arms up, which sent her blanket flying off her chest, exposing her camisole and some of her abdomen. Realizing this, she very quickly covered herself back up again, all the while staring at Alex as if she did have a sealed eye power which would kill the gamer instantly.

“This hot-cold routine is turning chaotic even for us.” Alex sighed.

Fernanda averted her own gaze. In the back of her mind she knew that this was something that could have happened. There was a communique to all officers with the minutes from a long meeting interrogating several figures which had come aboard the ship recently. Those notes addressed the very real possibility that room assignments would have to be changed in order to accommodate new long-term personnel. And Fernanda knew that she sat next to Alex Geninov, that they had a moment recently, that– she thought about her semi-fondly sometimes– so there was always the possibility–

“I know this isn’t your fault– ahem–this fate was not of your own making, gamer–”

Alex smiled at her in the middle of code switching. “Hey, nice save–”

“Silence, knave.” Fernanda sighed. “I am against this– but there’s no fighting it–”

“Believe me, I don’t want to bother you anymore. But if I live in the hall, the Captain will notice.”

Alex made a comical little shrug, winking at Fernanda, who stared at her dead seriously.

There was truly no way around this. Short of a harassment incident, room assignments were final.

“Fine! Then we must draft bylaws to insure a harmonious coexistence.” Fernanda replied.

Of course, she didn’t want to have to live with this gamer and her stupid handsome face–

–there was just no fighting the Captain’s orders! So she just had to learn to live with it.

–she was not excited in the least! In fact, she was quite angry!

“You will swear an oath upon your very life to remain on your half of the room unless exiting by way of the door or upon receiving an explicit invitation to my side of the room.” Fernanda said.

“I mean, I’ll swear it, but like– I didn’t expect you to ever invite me anyway.” Alex said.

“Of course I would not! I am merely being thorough in my oath-binding!” Fernanda said.

Alex stared at her with a little grin that Fernanda did not like whatsoever.

“And you had best become acquainted with my preferred routine, and furthermore, you shall take no offense at my laughter at any point. You shall not call my laugh ‘goofy’ or any other such thing!”

“I’m fine with your laugh now. I hear it literally every night. It’s totally fine.” Alex said.

“You had better be! Or a pox upon you! Furthermore–”

She was about to ban video games from the room. She was quite close to saying it.

But she knew that would have been too cruel for Alex, and some part of her didn’t want to hurt her.

Fernanda noticed that she was pretty bored in a lot of their night shifts. Sometimes that boredom led her to be annoying, but she could also be sociable. This is why she always asked about Fernanda’s novels even though she just made fun of them or wouldn’t really read them. Despite Fernanda’s misgivings about her lack of culture, she didn’t slack off, and the captain never had to reprimand her about her work or being at her post. She could be annoying, when she was at her post, but she was good at it.

There was something admirable about it– only mildly! Only the tiniest bit admirable!

However, it meant that it would feel unjust to try to force that condition on her.

After all, for better or for worse, she was a (filthy!) gamer.

“Mind the cacophony of your damnable children’s toys. I demand to read in peace!”

Fernanda set her very gentle red-line, after finding herself unable to truly torment Alex.

Alex immediately smiled. She turned around, quietly opened her suitcase, and withdrew a little black box. There were two joysticks plugged into it. It used a serial port for power and interfacing, and storage came from a memory stick slot on the side. This was a somewhat recent Turnir video game console.

“Want to play a round of Climbing Comrades before work, roomie?” Alex joked.

Fernanda narrowed her eyes at her. She sighed, but waved Alex’s hands away gently.

“Perhaps– upon another moon. Just unpack yourself already and be quiet.” She said.

She did mean it– maybe someday, but certainly not today, tomorrow or next week.

Certainly not! No matter how much that damnably good-looking, dreadfully mannered gamer asked!


Since the events of the interrogations, she had been avoiding a heavy question.

Am I– or are things– fundamentally changed.

Murati Nakara did not mention psionics to anyone. It helped that no one who knew asked.

In those two days, she learned how to shut the auras out. How to flick the light switch off.

When she was first baptized, everything had an aura.

Seeing that all day, from everyone around her, would’ve driven her insane. She first learned how to completely shut it off when she returned to her fiancé that same night. When she saw Karuniya’s face, after all of the terrifying things they had gone through, she almost felt like crying. At that point she realized she was going to see Karuniya’s aura, to read her feelings, to have this strange insight into her thoughts– and she hated it completely and utterly. She did not want to have this knowledge.

It felt–

–violating,

So she managed by force of will, to completely shut out the power. No auras anywhere.

Not Karuniya’s and not anyone else’s– at first she was scared she had lost the power.

But the next morning, when she wanted them back, the auras reappeared.

She could avoid them, ignore them, close her eyes to them. She had power over them.

But it meant she was changed. Her psionics would always return when she bid them back.

Then the next feeling that overcome her was guilt. She felt guilty about having this power.

Having this ability to peer unjustly at people’s emotions, without them knowing.

It was an order not to disclose it; and Murati understood why that was the case.

Despite this, she wished she could come clean. She wanted to be ordinary again.

For a day after her baptism she avoided people and crowds. It made it easier to deal with.

But she couldn’t keep hiding– she was an officer. She had duties to attend to.

So she became determined to at the very least tell Karuniya and then swear her to secrecy.

When Murati entered the Brigand’s lab she found herself greeted there by two completely identical conniving smiles that filled her weary heart with dread. She knew that Karuniya would make that face if she had some evil ingenuity she wanted to carry out; and Euphrates was probably just putting on the exact same face just to be a jerk to her. Regardless, it felt daunting to move any further.

“Oh hubby~” Karuniya said, drawing out the sound for a moment. “So happy to see you!”

She stepped forward with a drying module for the mushrooms held up against her chest.

Which she clearly now intended for Murati to take from her and set up in her place.

“Karu, hey,” Murati fidgeted, tapping her index fingers together, and then began to gesticulate while speaking “I uh– I wanted to talk to you. Alone. Can Euphrates go do something else?”

“Ah, young love.” Euphrates said, her voice grandiose. “I’ll see myself out.”

Murati stared daggers at her as she passed by while Euphrates simply smiled with a smug contentedness. She was clearly aware of her own role in all of this, and maybe even aware of what Murati wanted to have a conversation with Karuniya about. But she had not of her own will approached Murati for any further discussions about psionics yet. She was being hands-off and letting Murati twist in the wind.

Whether or not Murati preferred that to the alternative, she was not yet even sure.

Once Euphrates was out of earshot, Karuniya had put down the mushroom grow module and pulled up an adjustable stepladder she used when tending the gardens. She sat on top of it in lieu of a chair, so that she was closer to the eye level of an upright Murati. Kicking her feet gently, smiling, she still had a bit of an air of mischief while Murati stood oppsite her, wracked with anxiety. She had run through the conversation in her mind a few times, invented a few horrible outcomes to it and fully experienced the destruction of her relationship several times within her own head. Her heartbeat was thundering.

Murati sighed deeply. “Karuniya, there’s no easy way to say what I want to say to you.”

Karuniya’s smile disappeared instantly with those words. “Hey– Murati, I thought this was you being silly or withdrawn like normal. Is something wrong? Whatever it is, you know you can talk to me.”

“It’s something really insane.” Murati gesticulated vaguely. “Like this insane.”

“Uh huh. That doesn’t change anything for me. I’m here for your insanity no matter what.”

Her fiancé always had a preternatural gift for reading her vague gesticulations.

And the vague worries that she wore so plainly on her face.

“Karuniya. I have psychic powers. I can– I can move things with my mind and–”

“Hmph! I can’t believe you!”

Karuniya huffed. She crossed her arms and turned her cheek, kicking her legs harshly.

“I was really worried! I thought you had bone shards in your spine or something!”

“Karuniya I’m not joking with you! I know it sounds stupid! But I’m not making it up!”

Murati glanced at the grow module that Karuniya had put down.

She thought she would demonstrate by lifting it and gently levitating it into her arms.

For the first second, perhaps, it did lift and move toward her in a controlled fashion.

Then, Murati felt a sudden, snapping pain in her head, like a rubber band whipping against skin but inside her own skull. She was startled and lost control of the grow module. Instead of dropping, however, the grow module seemed to experience a sudden shock and snapped through the air toward Murati. That plastic and glass enclosure crashed into her and knocked her to the ground right in front of Karuniya. The Chief Scientist gasped, practically leaped off her chair and rushed to Murati’s side to help her.

“Oh my god! Oh my god are you okay? What the– what the hell happened?”

Shouting; Murati was on the ground, groggy. Her vision spun, she struggled with breathing.

That module had been pretty heavy, and it hit her chest and shoulder like a serious punch. Despite that the pain in her body could not compare to the pain inside her head. She felt a searing, slashing hurt in her skull, over her brain. For a moment the colors were floating around the laboratory like wisps and fairies in a children’s film, and every time she saw one it made her want to ‘feel’ it and exacerbated the pain. Her pain lessened when she ‘shut off’ her psionics and shut out Karuniya’s aura from her vision before she could feel too much of it– but it had sapped a lot of her physical strength in mere moments. She was as exhausted as if she had run at a full sprint for a few minutes. Out of breath, everything swimming.

Was that what happened when she overexerted her psionics?

And was the limit of her psionics really a six kilogram grow module?

Euphrates had not told her about any of this– about anything!

“Murati is that– your nose is bleeding! Here, let me–!”

Karuniya got down on the floor with Murati, wiping her noise with a synthetic cloth.

Red spatters of blood, just a tiny trickle. Murati barely felt it coming out of her nose. Where had it come from? It made no sense as an injury, it wasn’t like her brains could leak out of her nose. She felt momentarily insane, trying to wrap her head around something so surreal, new, and impossible.

Psionics conformed to nothing she could possibly understand. It violated everything that made up her reality, creating movement and force from nothing, draining her strength, and creating eerie wounds and phantom pains that defied sense. Even the actions that she had conditioned herself in her mind to take, that ‘flipping’ of the psionic switch, was so insubstantial and ludicrous as to feel like insanity–

“Murati, talk to me! Can you see me? Hear me? Are you all there?”

Overhead, the weeping face of her fiancé came into stark relief, an angelic image.

She did not want to make her cry or worry– she kept promising that and failing to keep it.

With a great effort, Murati fought back the panic, and threw her arms around Karuniya.

“Karu, please, you have to believe me. Just please– let me explain, okay?”

For a moment her fiancé did not respond; then she felt Karuniya’s hand stroking her hair.

“Of course, of course Murati. I’m really sorry– I’ll let you talk. Take your time.”

Slowly, Murati worked herself up to explain the events of the interrogation as best she could. She glossed over some items quickly that made Karuniya draw her eyes wide in confusion, like the Omenseer aboard, but spent at least ten minutes explaining in detail about Euphrates, about auras, about baptism and her newfound telekinetic ability. When Euphrates’ role was mentioned, Karuniya shot a look out to the hall as if she personally wanted to wring the woman’s neck for what she had done to Murati.

Karuniya helped Murati up, and they sat on a table near the bubble with the ship’s tree.

After Murati recounted her tale, her fiancé stared at her with a soft, sympathetic expression, but unnervingly quiet. She poked her own lips, crossed her arms, shifted her shoulders, thinking with her whole body. She raised her hand as if to say “hold please” a few times. Murati gave her space to think.

“When you tried to pick up the grow module, it hurt, didn’t it? It hurt you.” Karuniya said.

Murati nodded her head. “It did, but I’m fine. I should’ve figured there were limits to it.”

“You don’t look fine. I’m worried– but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious about your power.”

Karuniya looked ashamed to have admitted it. Murati reached out and stroked her hair.

“It’s okay. I want to show you too. I’ll try it on something small. Oh, I know!”

On her belt, Murati undid the plastic lanyard loop holding her officer’s ID card.

Murati put the card on the table– she figured it’d look too much like a corny magic trick if she held it in the palm of her hand or told Karuniya to hold it. She glanced at the ID card, in its place on the table, and blinked her eyes. Murati could feel the thin, ephemeral warmth of the red rings around her irises, and in the same way she felt the flick in her mind, flipping the “switch” or perhaps pulling the “trigger” on her psionic powers. It was extremely binary, extremely quick– one second there was nothing, and the next second, there was a world of supernatural information, stored in her in the same way as the instinctual and instant access she had to the movement of her limbs, to the recall of visual information.

It was as if she had grown a fifth limb, the phantom hand with which she could pick up the ID card and lift it from the table, into the air, with full control. The effort was so different as to feel quite strange.

With the growth of that limb came the secret information no human could explain aloud, the instructions for how the limb moved, how the limb felt. Unbidden and automatic, the neurons, the veins, the sinewy muscle of the thing simply performed the required task. If there was a period of command, it was infinitely small, it moved at a speed faster than light. When a human stretched an arm, when they flexed their fingers, did that action feel deliberate, was there a moment of real choice? For Murati, as soon as she had called upon the psionics, her understanding of how to use them simply happened to her, that fast.

“It’s even easier now. Even faster than the first time I did it.” Murati said.

Her dryly spoken observation accompanied the ID card, floating in front of a stunned Karuniya, doing a little pirouette in the air. Karuniya’s eyes followed the ID card on its tiny orbit over the center of the table with rapt attention. She reached out a curious hand and Murati brought the card lower and closer; this led to Karuniya slowly leaning back as it approached, as if the card was dangerous to be too close to.

“I just want you to see that there aren’t wires or devices or any tricks involved.” Murati said. “This is just me, Karuniya. I can just do this now. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, but I told you I would not be keeping my feelings secret from you and I am keeping my promise. I know you’re shocked right now, but I’m still the same Murati that you know, and I hope that– that this doesn’t freak you out too much.”

Karuniya blinked. She took the ID card out of the air, and Murati let it go.

She put it down on the table and reached out her hands to grab hold of Murati’s hands.

“Of course you’re still you; an absolute dummy.” She said, smiling. “Nobody else would speak so mournfully about how they’ve been granted incredible superpowers that I don’t really understand at all. You’re right, I am a bit shocked, but I also really appreciate that you didn’t just try to hide this. It really feels like a kind of thing the old Murati would’ve taken to the grave because the captain said so.”

“C’mon, I wasn’t– I wasn’t that bad. I didn’t hide stuff that was that important from you.”

Murati, her hands still firmly held in Karuniya’s own, averted her gaze with a bit of shame.

“Your feelings are extremely important to me, and you hid them all the god damn time.”

Karuniya winked at her, laughing a little bit as she teased her. Her tone was comforting.

Silly wife-and-“hubby” style banter made the situation feel a lot less alien and uncertain.

Looking into each other’s eyes, hands held in promise. Murati felt silly for being anxious.

Of course Karuniya would love her and accept her. This was her beloved Karu after all.

“I will keep your secret.” Karuniya said. “You’re my hubby and I love you to bits and that won’t change so easily. Frankly, after the initial surprise of seeing things just float without being grabbed by anything– I have to admit the power seems kind of weak and useless doesn’t it? No offense or anything, but maybe a sailor would get some utility out of it, like if she wants to get at a bolt that’s out of her reach or something. For the leader of a Diver squadron it’s not much of a weapon is it?”

Murati felt almost defensive about it for a moment.

“Maybe I’ll learn to throw things faster than the muzzle velocity of the AK rifles.”

“The AK rifle doesn’t get nosebleeds.” Karuniya joked, squeezing Murati’s hands.

“I suppose you’re right.”

In a way that was mildly more comforting. To think that this wasn’t so groundbreaking.

“Thanks, Karu. You’re the best.” Murati said.

“Hmm. Would you baptize me if I asked?” Karuniya winked at her.

“When I’m more comfortable that I wouldn’t blow your brain up.” Murati said.

“Fine, fine.” Karuniya suddenly put on a pouty but clearly mischievous face, her thumbs digging over the skin of Murati’s knuckles. “Say, since you’re up and about against your doctor’s orders anyway, there’s another, far more entertaining way that you could be blowing my brains out too.”

“Tonight.” Murati said simply and directly.

Karuniya grinned and leaned forward. “But your wifey is feeling needy right now.”

Murati smiled. “Euphrates is out in the hall, wifey dearest.”

“I can be quiet.” Karuniya winked again.

No, she absolutely could not. Especially not when Murati got serious. She was a screamer.

“Wait until tonight and I’ll make you cry out like a demon.” Murati said in a firm voice.

Karuniya licked her lips in a sultry fashion, smiling lasciviously. “Deal~” She cooed.

Soon, and far more productively than Murati could have imagined, everything was settled.

Murati agreed to keep Karuniya in the loop if anything happened with what they were furtively calling ‘the powers’, but Karuniya would pretend like she did not know anything until the Captain deemed it appropriate to tell more personnel about the issue. Murati also asked Karuniya not to treat Euphrates differently. Euphrates was psionic, and she was responsible for Murati having psionics, but Murati thought Euphrates was a good person, undeserving of scorn. Karuniya agreed that she would treat her as she normally did– she was already planning to prank and tease her and would just do so.

Both of them, of course, loved each other too much to ever see each other differently.

“You can stare at my aura if you want.” Karuniya said. “I have nothing to hide from you.”

Murati smiled. “I would really rather not– but thank you for allaying my fears.”

She had a lot of anxieties about this conversation, but they were now distant and they felt silly in retrospect. Murati should have realized right away that her own Karuniya Maharapratham would have never deserted her, no matter how strange the situation had become. And Karuniya was right– her powers were not so alien or powerful. If this was all psionics was, Murati was not so special.

Out in the hall, when Murati finally made to leave, Euphrates had been waiting.

Back to the wall, arms crossed, smiling. She looked quite satisfied with herself.

When she lifted her gaze to meet Murati’s, her irises were glowing red.

“You were eavesdropping, weren’t you.” Murati said. She wasn’t offended or angry.

“I understood everything I needed to from social cues alone. From the satisfied look on your face when you walked out, I see things turned out well.” Euphrates said calmly. “She loves you very much– you found a soulmate, miss Nakara. She can’t shut up about you around the lab, you know?”

“What are you doing? I see your eyes– you’re using psionics.”

Euphrates nodded, and her eyes returned to normal.

“I am not doing anything special right now. I just wanted to see if you were keeping sharp.”

“You didn’t tell me it could hurt to use psionics.” Murati said.

“I wanted to play it hands off for a bit.” Euphrates said. “I was curious what you would do. I’m not just being cruel, you know– psionics is strongly influenced by self-conceptualization. Just like we impart our aether on the things around us, it’s too easy to cultivate in someone a carbon copy of your own psionics. I want to see what psionics you can grow, with your own convictions, rather than copying mine.”

That made some kind of sense to Murati– but it was still a bit too hands-off for her taste.

Euphrates seemed to realize this. She stepped forward and laid a hand on Murati’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry. I won’t abandon you. But you may find my teaching method a bit anarchic.”

“Oh, I hate the sound of that.” Murati replied, smiling. “I’m a Mordecist, you know.”


“What do you think Braya? How do I look in hominin clothes?”

“You look– whatever. Why do you say ‘hominin’ anyway? Isn’t it ‘hominid’?”

“Hominin is strictly for species like homo sapiens; Hominid includes all great apes.”

“And you’re not a homo sapiens?”

“Nuh uh.”

“I hate how you pretend to be stupid sometimes, and then act erudite at others.”

“Mmm-hmm! Maybe I have very good reasons! And maybe I am stupid!”

Whatever. I’m over it.”

In Braya Zachikova’s room, a scene transpired that onlookers would have described as unorthodox, considering what they knew of the participants’ social predilections. It was not so troubling to have seen Arbitrator I trying to cling to Zachikova, which she did at every possible opportunity; but for Zachikova to practically be wearing her like a coat and saying nothing about it would have been seen as uncharacteristic, for those who did not understand her. Should she not have been yelling at her, calling her a pervert, and telling her to go die? In fact, Zachikova looked to be quite comfortable.

They were both in the same bed, with Arbitrator I against the wall, her long tail curling off the bed. Zachikova was seated closer to the edge, leaning back against Arbitrator I’s chest and between her legs, tapping away at a portable terminal. Arbitrator I looked over her shoulder, and frequently wrapped her arms around Zachikova’s waist, and sniffed her hair. There were blankets around the two. Despite the familiarity with which Arbitrator I was making use of Zachikova’s body the latter did not mind. She was immersed in her work, and there was an implicit understanding between the two of them.

Arbitrator I was dressed in the treasure box transports outfit, same as Zachikova.

They both left their coats on the side of the bed, so when Arbitrator I wrapped her arms around her Zachikova could glance down and see the bloodless pale skin of those sinewy, skinny limbs exposed by the sleeveless shirt she wore sans bodysuit. She was not fooled by the vulnerable appearance Arbitrator I was subtly putting on– she knew quite well that this creature could change her form. She could make those arms thicker and tougher when she wanted. But she wasn’t afraid of that anyway.

She knew killers and killing, and she felt that, for now, Arbitrator I was presently harmless.

Zachikova did not want to admit it– but she kind of felt at ease around this creature.

This was as alien as the concept of her warping her own flesh and having psychic powers.

That she could feel so good to be around. Despite being noisy, touchy, and needy.

It wasn’t the same as she felt for Arbitrator I’s leviathan form. That a boundary was broken between them made the situation much more immediate — it was not just a fantasy that she could be “together” with her “Dancer” and have some kind of relationship with this creature. With this new proximity, came the complexity of maintaining and developing such a relationship. It was unknown territory.

Despite this, Zachikova enjoyed the closeness to some degree— but would never admit it.

And her profession required her to exercise a certain, healthy degree of paranoia.

Paranoia was not a dealbreaker for Zachikova.

In her mind, people who were stricken with fear simply needed to prepare themselves to surmount the object or event that was the source of that fear. Zachikova was therefore fully prepared to kill Arbitrator I in a number of ways. Not because she wanted to, she was fond of the creature; but because it gave her the confidence to avoid causing Arbitrator I any harm and allowed them to live together peacefully. To Zachikova this was only logical. She was afraid and unused to living with someone, so she would prepare countermeasures, no matter who it was, to make sure that she could fully welcome them.

At the Captain’s request, she had disabled the bomb collar on Arbitrator I’s neck.

But she had other ways– such as a neurotoxin dart tazer she had on her person at all times.

Another special forces gadget for killers, smuggled in without the Captain’s awareness.

So, with her physical security assured, Zachikova didn’t care how much Arbitrator cuddled.

She would allow their cohabitation– and maybe even secretly enjoy it.

There was no disabusing the alien of her sense of entitlement toward Zachikova, anyway.

“My little Braya~”

Arbitrator I leaned close to Zachikova. She could feel the alien’s breasts against her back. Her arms wrapped around Zachikova’s chest, and her head nestled on her shoulder, her tail curling in closer. Red and white hair fell over her. When Arbitrator I nuzzled against the side of her head, Zachikova briefly felt the horns grazing her antennae. They were quite solid, like a pair of long knuckles on her head.

“What are you up to? Is there any way I can help?” She cooed.

“I’m logged into the supercomputer remotely, and from the supercomputer I’m logged into the HELIOS remotely. I’m working on an architectural profile of the HELIOS’ computer system, from both a hardware and software-centric point of view, collecting benchmark data. There’s nothing you can do to help. You can just sit there looking pretty. Those fat pillows on your chest are suitable assistance already.”

Zachikova cracked a little grin. Arbitrator I’s face rested placidly on her shoulder.

“I see! Hominins have really come a long way.”

Arbitrator I looked up at the sky. Zachikova glanced at her over her shoulder.

“Did ‘Hominins’ not have access to computers during your last period of lucidity?”

“They did, but they were much smaller. Yours looks much more robust and impressive!”

Zachikova looked at the device she was holding. She would have considered her portable terminal pretty standard in its size. It weighed about 1 kilogram, with a 27 centimeter screen. Miniaturizing put an extra burden in manufacturing, so the Union tended to make chunkier equipment– but even the Empire’s portable terminals would not be significantly smaller. Making it any smaller seemed absurd. She wondered how long ago Arbitrator I last saw a computer– but it was pointless to ask her to explain.

“Little Braya~”

“Mm-hmm?”

Mostly ignoring her, Zachikova began to lay out a table with the results from a variety of different tests ran on the HELIOS’ computer as a way to benchmark its performance. Zachikova had run a standardized battery of tests that would allow her to gauge the HELIOS’ abilities in multi-threading real world tasks, solving complex algorithms, rendering real-time graphics, and indexing vast sets of data, among a variety of other critical issues. The Union ran these tests on all systems. This information would then become part of a larger slide deck which she would present to the Captain. It was surprising how much of a computer scientist’s work was still in the form of making slide decks for less technologically literate people to read.

There was a certain artistry to making a slide deck that Zachikova enjoyed, however.

She chose the colors and template carefully, and laid out the slides with an eye toward the pacing.

Even the font was important, it had to be professional, legible, attractive in different sizes–

“Braya, I have to tell you something that must remain between us.”

Arbitrator I’s breathy, low voice whispered into the audio inputs on Zachikova’s antennae.

She felt the warmth of Arbitrator I’s breathing close to the nape of her neck.

There was stark change in the atmosphere. She felt a tingling electricity down her back.

“What is it?” Zachikova said. She did not turn around to meet the alien’s gaze.

“I am positive if you tell the Captain this, I will be liquidated immediately. But you need to know it.”

“Fine. I’ll keep your secret. Just say what you want to already.”

“Do you trust me? Do you really?”

“You’re just a piece of equipment. I’m not afraid of you. Stop dragging this out already.”

“That’ll do then, I suppose.”

Zachikova felt Arbitrator I’s grip tighten on her. One arm around her lower abdomen, and the other around her chest. Her tail curled around her legs. Her fingers rested, unmoving, over one of Zachikova’s breasts. She felt a certain kind of eros from being cradled in such a way– Arbitrator I was holding her in a very possessive way. Not yet to the point of feeling her up, but definitely feeling her in some way.

“Braya, I realized today that this ship does not carry any raw meat.”

“You idiot, you really had me going for a second–” Zachikova sighed. “I can’t believe you’re being this dramatic about the food! Yes, you’re correct, Detective Columbus, there’s no meat aboard! The Union doesn’t have a meat industry. It’s wasteful and inefficient. Eat your soy cutlet, you’ll live.”

She heard a breathy little laugh– she could almost see the smirk in her mind’s eye.

“I’m afraid that if I don’t get any meat– I might actually lose my mind, Braya.”

“As much as you pretend otherwise, you’re not some animal. You’ll live without meat.”

“No, Braya, you don’t understand. I need the meat; I’ll have to get it one way or another.”

Zachikova looked over her shoulder again. Out the corner of her eye, she could see the nervous expression which Arbitrator I had on. As soon as she turned to face her, Arbitrator I’s arms around her clutched her even more tightly, and her head descended on Zachikova’s neck. That once steady breathing on the nape of her neck began to hasten. She could feel a rising heartbeat transfer through their shared touch, Arbitrator I’s pounding chest closer than ever to Zachikova’s skinny back.

On the edge of her vision, Zachikova saw those eyes glowing a dim, eerie red.

“I’m afraid you might not understand the depth of this problem–”

“Then explain it already!”

Arbitrator I bowed her head closer.

“Braya, my ambition is to bridge the world of the Hominins and my own people. That’s the impossible dream that began my journey through the ocean– I have been searching so long, but you are the first Hominin I ever saw who showed me affection. Your mind is so gentle, so curious. I wanted to meet you, to talk to you, to be able to love you and be loved back. I want to begin to mend the violence but– but–”

She let out a low gasp into Zachikova’s neck. Her legs tightened a bit around Zachikova.

Zachikova listened to her confession quietly but with keen interest. Something was wrong.

“–even Shalash of lost Lemuria, the First Beast, cannot escape– the need to devour–

For the first time, Zachikova felt her heart gripped by the ice-cold tendril of mortal fear.

Surreptitiously, instinctually, she moved one of her fingers to the neurotoxin gun in her pants pocket–

“Braya– my people eat your kind. But I’m different– I swear can be different– If you–”

Hearing her rising, impassioned tone Zachikova carefully lifted her hand out of her pocket.

She laid it on Arbitrator I’s own hand, over her own chest, and squeezed it reassuringly.

Empty of the lethal weapon which she had briefly considered turning on this poor woman.

“What do you need?” Zachikova asked. “Just– tell me already what it will take to fix you.”

“If I can’t have bloody red meat– I must have blood. I can calm myself with your blood.”

“My blood? Good god. I can tell why you don’t want the Captain to know about this.”

Zachikova sighed. It was only that. She wasn’t going to attack her or anything more serious.

“I swear– I swear I don’t want to be violent toward Hominins anymore–”

“I believe you. If you wanted to kill us you’ve had a million chances.”

Arbitrator I sounded like she was weeping. Her voice was wavering, choked.

It must have been genuine. Her desire to avoid the violence she claimed inherent to her species. If she was so torn up about this, it was not just her playing or acting. Her species, if it was related to the Leviathans, it was certainly possible to argue they had done a lot of violence to the ‘hominins’. And Leviathans did eat people– so then, it might not have been such a stretch that these ‘Omenseers’ had a history of eating people too. A real history that Arbitrator I wanted to overturn.

“Then– will you help me staunch my barbaric need–?” Arbitrator I whimpered.

“You’re a piece of equipment. I’m going to fix you. Where do you take the blood from?”

She unbuttoned some of her shirt, pulling it off her shoulders, thinking it’d be easiest–

In the next instant, Arbitrator I’s lips spread over Zachikova’s shoulder, close to her neck.

Zachikova flinched, feeling a brief instant of panic, but calmed herself in time–

–for the sting of a pair of incisors breaking skin on her shoulder and drawing blood.

Even though Zachikova expected the bite, it took an iron resolve to keep from reacting to the pain initially. Arbitrator I’s arms clutched her tightly, her chest pressed against Zachikova’s back, her tail bound her. Caught in her grasp, she was bleeding, it was painful. Seconds passed– but she mastered herself. She relaxed in Arbitrator I’s grip and stroked that hand that was clutching her breast.

Arbitrator I’s bite was desperately needy– but there was a certain tenderness to it. Blood lapping into her tongue, the sucking of lips on skin, and the careful precision of the teeth, such that Zachikova felt the punctures but no tearing, only the briefest violent instant. It was not like an animal’s attack, even though Arbitrator I’s description of the act had been as primal, barbaric sin. There was an unavoidable physical titillation Zachikova felt as the act progressed. Maybe there was something seeping back into the wounds from the creature’s mouth– an anesthetic– or an aphrodesiac– the pain began to feel–

–cathartic, a release of tension, a rushing of endorphins to the brain,

clouding vision, an erotic dream lit dimly by the blue light of the portable screen,

teeth that opened her and bared blood but carried no violence, spreading a form of joy,

joined in skin penetrated by bone fulfilled in the blood penetrating back into those lips,

–she gasped, caught in the throes of a euphoric and erotic madness.

Zachikova found herself smiling, breathing heavy in the rawness and physicality of the act.

When she felt Arbitrator I’s fangs lifting gently out of her flesh, releasing the wounds–

A woman who once considered herself nothing but a cold machine turned sharply around–

Gazing intently into drawn-wide feral red eyes and a mouth caked in the ichor–

And she kissed deep into those red streaked lips, tasting the iron of her own blood, the dripping liquor from fangs which had penetrated her. Sucking, hungry kisses until her own blood dripped down her lips.

Shirt half fallen from her, her brassiere askance, her eyes shut, losing herself in the passion and touch.

Everything that was warm, everything that was soft, the heavy drumming of the circulatory system beneath the skin, the moist feeling of another’s tongue, the pull of hungry lips and the brief graze of the teeth that had painted her shoulder red. A tight grip upon her back, the press of the woman’s legs, and the moistness between her own amid the act. Losing herself in what was flesh and blood like she had once immersed herself in what was steel and electric. Her mind crashing in a haze of pleasure.

Alien machines beginning their journey to reconcile biologies long ago divided.


“To surviving hell!”

“To beating the odds!”

Shot glasses touched with a satisfying clink, the fluids in them briefly sloshing against the rims before streaming through parted lips. Tuzemak, an indie beet liquor, with as sweet a taste as spirits could have and a gentle, boozy bite. It was warm down Ulyana Korabiskaya’s throat, it was warm in her chest. Aaliyah Bashara’s charming cat-like ears vibrated lightly as the booze went down. She was clearly a bit of a lightweight, Ulyana knew that from personal experience. She would not tease her about it.

“Want a second?” Ulyana asked.

“You only live once. Hit me.”

Aaliyah smiled at her, uncharacteristically gregarious that night.

Ulyana refilled the shot glasses on the desk, which they were using as a table together.

They picked up the glasses, tapped them together, and drank once more.

Both were in their night clothes, plain white camisoles and cotton shorts of a standard design.

Their recent business was taken care of. Until they arrived at Rhinea, things would be quiet.

Ulyana decided to take a chance and offer Aaliyah to celebrate together in private.

Surprisingly, the usually stiff and guarded Commissar relented, and there they were.

On opposite ends of the little writing desk in their room, in their night clothes, drinking Tuzemak.

It had only been a few weeks since their departure, but they had come such a long way.

Though they were nowhere near close to accomplishing their mission, they had surmounted danger and proven themselves capable of surviving the ocean in this chaotic era. They and their crew had been tested to their utmost limits and found worthy. Maybe it was the liquor, but it felt significant.

Setting out was a gamble; none of them truly knew if they had ability to fight and win against the Empire– not the Union itself writ large and not the UNX-001 Brigand specifically. Now the Brigand had been bloodied against monumental catastrophes like a High Inquisitor and the Praetorian herself.

They had bested a mighty Irmingard dreadnought and outmaneuvered a legendary Fueller enforcer.

It would be those kinds of terrors that would hound a subversive group in the Empire.

And not only did they stand a chance against them– they had also acquired precious allies in the process.

They had unearthed hidden powers, uncovered secrets– becoming legends of the ocean.

Maybe that part was a bit of the liquor talking as well. But it really did feel– legendary.

“We’re going to be legends! They’ll write us into the history books!”

“We can’t get too excited yet,” Aaliyah said, “but still. It’s worth celebrating our victory.”

“We sent Norn the Praetorian herself packing. If I can’t celebrate this, what can I?”

Without asking, Ulyana poured a third shot for each. Aaliyah took it without objection.

“Fuck it. Why not.” Aaliyah said. “To the thousand generations that live in us!”

“Hell yeah!” Ulyana said. “To the slaves and exiles’ proletarian revolution!”

They tapped their glasses together, and the two drank almost at the same time.

Aaliyah exhaled contentedly after taking her drink. Her tail swayed gently behind her.

Ulyana looked at Aaliyah from across the table, holding her head up with one hand on her cheek.

Her soft olive skin, dark hair and orange eyes, the small sharpness of her nose, she was lovely.

That night she was bathed in a glow that was so comforting to see.

“Did you ever think it would turn out like this, Commissar?” Ulyana winked with one eye.

“Not even in my most incoherent dreams. But things change.” Aaliyah replied.

She gestured with her shot glass forward. Ulyana smiled. “Oh, feeling bold tonight?”

“No teasing, Captain. Just pour me another. I can control myself.” Aaliyah replied.

“Of course! I trust you completely.” Ulyana refilled both their glasses. Another toast.

For this one, they did not call out to honor anything specific.

Glasses tapped together, they drank.

Throughout their eyes remained fixed on one another. This was a toast to “us.”

To what they had accomplished as Captain and Commissar of their beautiful crew.

And perhaps to more than that– though neither of them would vocalize such things yet.

“It has been a pleasure.” Aaliyah said. She did not say what or whom. Ulyana knew that.

“Indeed. Serving with you has been an honor of my life, Aaliyah Bashara.”

Both of them smiled. Ulyana put away the bottle and washed the glasses.

“We’ll need to send Nagavanshi a report.” Aaliyah said. Her voice was slightly slurred, but she retained her faculties quite well. “We’re so close to the surface now, no worries about the thing getting lost. I’ll write it up tomorrow. I’ll write up what we send. I’ll keep out– all the stuff from it. Like– like this stuff.”

“Acknowledged.” Ulyana said. “I’ll tell Zachikova to program a data transfer munition tomorrow.”

“Good. Say– say Captain– Ulyana.” She hesitated, briefly. “I want to say– Thank you.”

Aaliyah put on a bigger, brighter smile than ever. Ulyana hardly knew what to say in return.

“Let’s do this again. In Rhinea– let’s get a good vodka just for us.” Aaliyah continued.

Ulyana finally found her words a few seconds later. “Oh, of course. I’d love to.”

Aaliyah reached out a hand to her. Ulyana thought it was to shake–

Instead, Aaliyah took the hand Ulyana stretched to her, and held it again in both of hers.

Caressing it, first with her fingers, and then lifting it against her cheeks and nuzzling it.

A little purr escaped from her. Ulyana savored the moment. Just for a few quiet minutes.

Perhaps the most tender touch she had ever felt.


“Knock, knock!”

Elena lifted her head up from the portable terminal in her hands. Displayed on the screen was a book, authored by a “Levi Mordecai” and co-authored by “Daksha Kansal.” It was titled “Mordecai’s Writings On Capital: A Digest For Students.” Elena’s attention to the large print and many diagrams was beginning to waver when she saw a flash of dark hair peek through the door, partially covering one eye and tied to a handsome smile. It was a certain Marina McKennedy, with whom she shared the room.

“You can come in. This is also your room too, you know?” Elena said affably.

“I know, but recently we’ve been apart a lot– I figured you might be used to more privacy.”

“It’s more and less privacy than I’ve ever had.”

Marina walked through the door with a casual step. She had refused to wear the Treasure Box Transports uniform unless absolutely necessary, so she still dressed in her G.I.A. issue dark-grey suit jacket and pants, her shirt only partially buttoned beneath. She really liked to show off that scar on her chest, in between the cleave of her breasts, so she wasn’t wearing a bodysuit underneath anymore.

“I see they’re turning you into a commie already.” Marina said.

Elena raised the portable terminal to her chest to prevent Marina from looking any more.

“It’s fine, sorry.” Marina laughed. “Honestly, I’m happy to see you’re all getting along.”

“What if it’s more than just getting along? What if I do become a ‘commie’?”

Elena stared at her with narrowed, serious eyes.

Marina raised her hands defensively. “Jeez, you don’t have to treat me like that.”

She was smiling– nervously.

For a moment, Elena realized she was being over-combative and breathed in deep.

“Sorry. We’ve had a bumpy ride lately.” She admitted.

“It’s my fault. I wanted to apologize, actually.” Marina said.

“No, it’s not just your fault. I– I tried to hurt you. I got out of control. I’m really sorry.”

Tears started to well up in Elena’s eyes.

She had been meaning to apologize, but what she did felt so disgusting she almost felt it would have been shameless to ask for forgiveness. By all rights, she though Marina should just hate her forever.

“Hey,”

Marina kneeled to her eye level and grabbed hold of Elena’s face, squishing her cheeks.

She let go once Elena’s expression started to go from sad to indignant once again.

“I’m not crying about it Elena, so you don’t need to.” She said. “I’ve also been an asshole. I’ve been the biggest asshole here. I treated you like a package I was delivering– I never considered your feelings. I kept telling myself that I was doing this for so many different people, but you. And your feelings are the most important ones– you’re the one still living after all. I’m so deeply sorry.”

“You saved my life.” Elena said. “I never thanked you for it.”

Marina laughed. “I don’t need thanks. I care about you. I just need to show it more.”

She backed off and sat on the edge of the opposite bunk, folding her hands over her lap.

Like Elena, she filled her lungs deep and breathed out long.

Then she fixed Elena with a serious gaze again.

“Your mother was a truly life-changing love for me. I am happy you took her name. That bastard Konstantin’s never suited you. I respect your decision to abdicate.” Marina’s gaze drifted, as if she was reading from a mental script and needed to turn the page. Her next words left her lips with great difficulty and hesitation. There were many pauses. “I just wanted to ask, if you’ll have me– if I could still advise you, and protect you. You can say no– I’ll just work for the commies for a while and then find my own way. The Republic can go fuck itself, but I’m no fan of Bhavani Jayasankar either. So I’m not joining them.”

Elena put down her portable terminal, and stood up from bed. She walked a step and reached out to Marina’s hands, taking both of them in her own. She softened her expression, tried to smile.

“I don’t want you to go. I want to get to know you. I don’t want you to advise and protect me as either as a G.I.A. agent or someone beholden to my mother. Let’s just be friends– I want to care about you too, like you care about me. But I don’t want servants, or protectors, anymore. I don’t want anyone else to be hurt on my account, or to devote themselves to me. Can we just be friends, Marina McKennedy?”

Marina stared at her for a moment. Speechless, blank faced at first.

She then pulled her shaking hands away from Elena.

Laughing– but there was a bit of that shaking in her tone of voice as well.

“Friends? Sure. Why not? I don’t have a single other friend anyway.”

Marina forced a little smile at her.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry! I touched you without your permission!”

Elena covered her mouth with her hands, aghast at her own carelessness.

“It’s fine. It’s fine. If it wouldn’t have been I’d have kicked you or something.”

Marina was clearly struggling but trying to take it stride.

“Oh, I’m such an idiot–” Elena grit her teeth. “I mess everything up, even being earnest.”

“We’ll get better together. I haven’t even cursed once in this whole conversation.”

She reached out her hand. Elena looked down at it. It was her turn to be uncomprehending.

“Is it ok?” She asked, staring at Marina with concern.

“Of course it is.” Marina said dismissively.

Elena reached out gently and shook Marina’s hand.

“Friends, then.” Marina said, grinning.

“Friends! We’ll make it through all of this together.” Elena cheerfully replied.

Once-guardian and once-ward shook hands and started anew as peers, as friends.

A terrible and deep tension seemed to lift off their shoulders then. Those chains of obligation which once bound them in tragic acrimony now became like a crown of flowers they were affectionately tying together. A sense of lightness and an almost ridiculous humor fell upon them, now just friends.


Now that Alexandra’s room was cleared out, it became the residence of the Brigand’s new, enigmatic guests, Tigris, and Euphrates. (Their ex-employee Xenia Laskaris was sleeping in the social lounge.) The two of them had little in the way of personal luggage aboard the Brigand. Both had Treasure Box uniforms and neither were using their own personal terminals, as the Brigand’s supercomputer now had access to the Helios system, so they could review anything they wanted via Union terminals.

“Thank everything we decided not to bring Eden aboard during this trip.” Tigris sighed. “We would have had a universe-load of tedious explaining to do if they got their hands on that thing.”

“It’s fine. Things turned out okay when you think about how much worse it could have been.”

“Things are the opposite of fine, Euphrates. Everything can always be worse, that doesn’t mean anything.”

“We couldn’t have known Arbitrator II was holed up down there. At least we’re not too inconvenienced.”

Euphrates was calm, despite everything. She truly believed there was some element of destiny to all of this. For them to be left stranded repelling an attack from Syzygy, then picked up by the Brigand, only to then confront Norn, and to set out against Yangtze. A seismic shock like this was a long time coming. Ever since Mehmed, these events were inescapable. Euphrates now had no choice but to accept it now.

Deep down, she was grateful to Murati Nakara and the Brigands.

If the Empire was going to fracture– maybe it was time the Sunlight Foundation resolved its own contradictions as well. Euphrates was thankful to Norn too. Norn made sure she couldn’t keep running.

“This was always going to happen. I deluded myself with my wishful thinking.”

Both laying down on their opposite bunks, the two women had little to say to each other. Through psionics, they had already been conferring privately since they joined the crew. So being able to speak physically alone in a room was not much different, no more private than before. They already knew each other’s intentions and concerns. Voicing them was just a comforting redundancy. Small talk.

“Why didn’t you tell them about Maryam?” Tigris said aloud.

“I like Maryam, don’t you? She’s a good kid. If she’s not telling them, I won’t.”

“I like Maryam too– fair enough. We’ll have to teach them about apostles at some point.”

Euphrates responded coolly. “That’s a very advanced topic. If we have the misfortune to meet Norn again, or even Majida, I’ll tell them about the Apostles. Though I don’t think Maryam is ready contend with either of them. We would need to train her– but I’m still not going to violate her trust so easily.”

“You’re so principled when it comes to other people.” Tigris said in a mocking voice.

“Well, it’s because the unmatched, beautiful genius Tigris hardly needs my sympathy.”

“Hmph. I’ll accept your backhanded praise. But this situation is so bad right now.”

“I’m sorry to have dragged you into my mess. But I truly need you.” Euphrates said.

Her tone of voice was calm and confident as always, but she really meant it.

Tigris was her devoted partner. She followed her everywhere. She supported her.

Euphrates knew Tigris would follow her even into certain death. Kill or die for her.

It made her as guilty as she felt about Norn, Yangtze– and now, maybe, even Murati.

“Bah. I didn’t take your freak blood into me so I could live forever doing nothing.”

“Thank you for being reassuring, even when I don’t deserve it, my love.”

After that, the room went quiet. They had both, long ago, implicitly accepted each other’s adventures through life. Uncertainty about the future had a different character for the immortals.


The UNX-001 Brigand continued its voyage through the sunlit seas, remaining above the Upper Scattering Layer where, with Arbitrator I’s assistance, they encountered no enemies. It was not a journey completely without danger, however. Cameras picked up Leviathans of all shapes and sizes, some curiously following the Brigand but barred from attacking it, others circling from afar as if awaiting a chance, perhaps testing Arbitrator I’s authority– no one knew, but since the Omenseer acted unconcerned, so did the bridge crew. They did not formally “witness” these Leviathans.

There were other fauna as well, some of which were undocumented. These fish were not Leviathans, as they lacked hydrojet propulsion. Some of these appeared entirely normal. Other animals, like whales and dolphins, were covered in hex shaped scars. Still a few more had patches of purple, dusty skin as if they had accreted agarthicite on themselves over many years. Even stranger were the completely mutated species, fish with hexagonal body plans, jellyfish and siphonophores with agarthic patterns. Karuniya Maharapratham had never seen anything like it and lamented they could not stop and study them.

Other phenomena infrequently encountered solidified the fact that this paradise was too close to the alien realm of God. With forewarning from Arbitrator I the crew avoided eerie currents that twisted water in on itself, forming curling vortexes, zig-zagging jetstreams and unnaturally angled whirlpools. They skirted past the remains of islands that remained as if blasted underwater and severed at their roots such that all that was left were constellations of rocks with smooth hex-shaped patterns over their crust, anchored to a space by no visible force, some with warped, fleshy vegetation still affixed.

Every so often they would come upon a darker patch of ocean, where the surface was deeply clouded and great, roaring flashes of purple lit the plane of heaven above. On some of these encounters, Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara agreed to have all cameras shut off and to navigate by computer with Arbitrator I’s assistance, to allay any possible panic of the crew at large. The Sailors had been informed, but their exposure to the phenomena of the surface was kept as limited as possible. They were told that their ability to navigate the photic zone was due to a classified device.

A little over a week after their circuitous route from Goryk began, over the Khaybar range, constantly shifting course to avoid the various dangers that made a direct route impossible, the Brigand finally entered the Imbrium Ocean, the seat of the oppression gripping the world’s western hemisphere. They were crossing to within the borders of Rhinea and could soon begin to chart a course to their next destination, in the far northwest of the former duchy. To a place called the “Kreuzung Station Complex” in the region of “Eisental.” It was known, apparently, for its mining, metallurgy and heavy industry.

“Solarflare LLC’s headquarters are located in one of the Kreuzung habitats. We have a humble installation within the fifth station tower. We can take care of finding the ‘Pandora’s Box’ a drydock so we can work on it and keep ‘Treasure Box Transports’s situation on the down-low during our stay. Maybe even give all of you a few days’ worth of a station vacation, on the company’s dime.” Euphrates said cheerfully.

“My, how generous.” Captain Korabiskaya remarked skeptically. “I’ll consider it, I suppose.”

“At the very least, I invite your crew to our corporate lounge. We can host sixty at a time.”

“If Yangtze hasn’t taken over the company by the time we get there.” Tigris interrupted.

“I’m not as much afraid of Yangtze doing that as the Volkisch Movement.” Euphrates said.

Whether or not they would get to throw a party was the least of the Captain’s concerns.

Nevertheless, at least they had a concrete direction to take for their next journey. Soon they would be back in the shadow of humanity’s new home, leaving behind the sunlit heaven through which they had been soaring. There was no love for it which had developed, only the eerie sense that having left the only world they had known, they would now be descending into it from a height once thought impossible.

In the middle of this, sometime after they set out but sometime before–

“Murati.”

Sonya Shalikova stopped Murati Nakara in the hall and pulled her aside for a moment.

Murati looked quite elated. Her reserved subordinate rarely reached out to her.

“What can I help you with, Shalikova?”

“You don’t have to look so happy about it! I just– I want to ask your advice on something.”

“Of course, always. What do you need advice about?”

“Umm–”

In that moment, the two looked into each other’s eyes and saw a flash.

Psionic power coursed through both of them in an instant.

In Shalikova, deliberately summoned–

From Murati, almost a reflex, out of curiosity–

Murati saw red rings appear around Shalikova’s eyes and Shalikova saw the same in hers.

But Murati could not see any aura around Shalikova whatsoever. Even if she focused on it.

While Shalikova could see the basic human state of green and blue aura, along with what alarmed her. An expanding band of white, along with a thin band of borderline yellowed red. Murati’s aura firmed up, it felt for a moment “prickly” as if it was erecting a defense, or maybe “sharp” as if it was ready to cut. Murati expressed physical surprise, a little reflex, a drawing back from Shalikova, that the latter fully captured with her keen eyes, fully understood within an instant that Murati was taken aback.

“It’s nothing! Sorry to bother you! I’ve got work to do!”

Shalikova panicked and ran around Murati and took off down the hall–

“Shalikova! I– I’m sorry– It’s really fine! Come back!”

–disappearing into an elevator down to the hangar before Murati’s words could reach her.

Standing out in the hall, Murati looked on at all of the dim but living auras around her.

Wondering what exactly was different about the suddenly psionic Sonya Shalikova.

And how she would approach the girl, who was clearly trying to read into her psionically.

She sighed deeply– realizing she still had a ways to go as a leader.

In this strange new era, the drama of which they had only begun to uncover.


In the eyes of Carthus von Skarsgaard, Erich von Fueller was the most beautiful being in the world. A golden-maned, sleek warhorse of a man, both lean and strong, androgynous as if carved into the world by delicate, sturdy hands to platonically represent beauty. Perfect in height, perfect in build, measured and balanced in all things. Beyond his body, his mind was rich and keen, his voice strong yet melodic. He could speak eloquently on the arts, on politics, on war, and entertain guests with aristocratic largess. He was neither too elitist nor ever crass. He was meritocratic but understood the context of a noble upbringing and the advantages it brought. Nothing was missing in his beloved Erich.

Carthus himself was described as a very beautiful young man, but next to Erich, he felt as the orbiting mercury to the grandiosity of the sun that humanity lost. And he felt welcome in such a role, and savored being at Erich’s side during the various social functions which they had been attending. Erich was struggling to set right the Palatinate so that he could begin his military moves– but there were unexpected setbacks. His enemies stronger than he expected; his allies weaker than he thought.

Erich was forced to rely more and more on untrustworthy individuals with foul powers.

Though he wished he could do more, all Carthus could do was be a comforting witness.

He was powerless– his sister Millennia had taken over his kingdom and established a theocracy that now warred with his beloved Erich and the rest of the world, The Holy Kingdom of Solcea. In terms of personal retainers, Carthus had few loyal subjects left. He was still wealthy, for his name still carried worth to the people keeping ledgers, but aside from hiring Katarran mercenaries on credit from the Palatine’s royal banks he could do nothing for Erich’s war effort. It pained him– but he had the emotional intelligence not to panic over it. He did what he could for Erich and he trusted Erich loved him dearly for it.

What he liked to do most for Erich was sing to him. Erich loved his singing voice.

There were many nights when, after a high profile meeting, Erich would return to his quarters and Carthus would be secretly there, dressed in a loose robe, and he would sing to him, and they would make love after, if Erich felt up to it. Sometimes he would just sing to him and take pleasure in how calm and at peace he was with the singing. This felt like his life’s purpose. To support Erich in all things.

One such night, Carthus had been singing, but could feel, throughout, Erich’s anxiety.

He hardly wore it on his face, as if he was hewn out of stone and had no expressions.

But Carthus could tell, from having been around him enough, for years and years now.

“Is something the matter?” He asked. “You can tell me anything.”

Erich had been clearly waiting for the matter to be brought up.

“I almost hoped you wouldn’t ask.” He said. There was a strange gravity in his voice.

“Of course I ask. I care about you. It’s been hard for you lately, hasn’t it?”

“Syrmia is useless, and Norn is uninterested in the affairs of state. The bureaucracy in the Palatine has been withering since my father’s retreat from politics. Yes: it’s been tough on me, Carthus.”

Carthus nodded. He had misgivings– particularly about Norn. But he kept quiet.

He knew if he said ‘Norn seems more interested in destroying the state’ that Erich would simply brush it off. Despite frequent anxieties that he would have to fight Norn someday, he did esteem his “aunt” — far more than he esteemed his actual blood aunt, Syrmia von Fueller, whom he had refused to allow to marry Norn to canonize the current Fueller leadership. Not that Norn would have accepted such a thing either. Norn was a brute, in Carthus’ eyes, a vicious, uncaring, violent person. Syrmia may have been ‘useless’ but at least she was human. Carthus could not keep away the feeling that Norn was a monster.

Erich seemed to truly feel something for his aunt Norn. Entrusting her with troops and technology. He did not shy away from improving her capability to one day undo him. Perhaps he saw it as a challenge, like his father once saw the Imbrian nobles– or perhaps Norn was his only competent “ally” left. Her status was therefore unimpeachable. Carthus could not insult her. It would have done nothing.

But that was beside the point. It was not just stress which was bringing Erich down.

And it was not just about Norn or Syrmia. Carthus could tell this was personal.

“It’s about me, isn’t it? Am I holding you back, Erich?”

“No. Of course not. Never.”

They were together in Erich’s bedroom on the Irmingard, a grand and lavish room for a ship, with an exquisite four-post, ceilinged bed, the walls highly decorated with flowers, silk curtains, golden accents of carved wings. All of the room was painted wine-red as a main color to better fit the golden trim. He had a computer terminal on a desk near his bed, consisting of a box tucked away in one of the drawers with the only visible parts being the main screen and the touch-board. They had been together in bed.

Erich stroked Carthus’ cheek and stood from the bed, dressed in a blue and green robe.

With his back to his lover, Erich finally spoke up about his anxiety.

“I have a difficult decision to make. A decision I have been delaying. This is extremely selfish of me, but I want you to evaluate my reasons. I have been keeping things from you Carthus. I want to induct you into the truth of the world which I know, and then ask you to decide something for me. You, who are purer of heart than I. Your soul is not yet blackened as mine as is. You will tell me if I must do this.”

Carthus was both shocked, but also happy to be taken into Erich’s confidence.

Of course, as an aristocrat, he was aware that Erich would keep secrets from him.

Great Men could never give the whole of themselves to any single person after all.

“I am listening.” Carthus said from bed. “I will support you no matter what, Erich.”

His heart swelled thinking that Erich needed him in such a fundamental way.

“Very well.” Erich said. “EDEN, it is time. Display on the main screen.”

On the wall in front of the bed, a thin wall panel slid aside to reveal an even larger screen. Carthus imagined the main screen was the one on his desk, but he had been wrong. Taking up much of the wall, it was like being in a private theater. At Erich’s command, the main screen lit up blue, with a sigil of a sun appearing briefly on the screen. Then, something like a wavelength occupied it, again quite briefly.

Finally, a woman’s dispassionate face appeared. Shoulder length blue hair, messy, very lightly curly and wavy, with very pale skin, dressed in a vest, shirt, and suit. There was a bit of a glow about her features.

She opened her eyes, which were clearly mechanical.

Was this a computer graphic in real time or a video of someone? Carthus could not say for certain.

“Carthus, this is EDEN, an archive of every sin recorded by a group of ageless demons.”

Looking at Erich, Carthus noticed that something like a globe had appeared on his hand.

It was see-through, like a bubble, but vaguely geometric rather than smooth.

By interacting with the holographic globe, he seemed to be able to command this EDEN.

“EDEN, summarize ‘Norn von Fueller’.” Erich commanded.

On the screen, the woman began to speak, her voice deep and erudite.

“Norn von Fueller, alias of Astra Palaiologos. Also known as Norn Tauscherer. Codename Cocytus. Pelagis race, Katarran ethnicity, Panthalassan subrace. Pelagis process donors include panderichthys and tiktaalik DNA. Main human donor was Aegean Palaiologos III, former monarch of the Kingdom of Katarre. Gender/Sex– she made a crude drawing of a fish. Age was recorded as 43 years old in 935 A.D., but psychological development in 935 A.D. was noted to be regressed far below her biological age. Summary: Once an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation. Apostle of Water, but her power was seen to quickly degrade to exclusively Cryokinesis, so she is called the Apostle of Ice. Along with Mehmed Khalifa, one of the most powerful psionics recorded– but her power since degraded to far below Mehmed’s peak level. Crucial element of Project Deicide, the Immortals’ successful intervention against Mehmed’s Jihad. After Mehmed’s Jihad, she entered the service of the Fueller family and left the Immortals permanently.”

Carthus hardly understood half the words the machine had said.

“Erich, what is this?” He asked, his eyes fixed on the dispassionate woman on the screen.

“It’s the truth, Carthus. Truth that was hidden from us.” Erich said. “Around twenty years ago, a criminal codenamed ‘Asan’ aided a G.I.A agent by the name of Blake McClinton in a plot to assassinate the Emperor, by providing high-tech equipment funneled through a biological research firm. The equipment was surreptitiously paid for by Leda Lettiere. ‘Asan’ also connected the G.I.A. to mercenary fighters in support of their plot. Norn intervened in the plot, and put a stop to it, capturing McClinton and Leda Lettiere. During these events, I came to acquire this device, the EDEN, from Asan herself.”

“Twenty years ago?” Carthus said. “You would have been a child.”

Erich cracked a little grin. He was clearly impressed with himself for owning this device.

“I was a child, yes– But old enough for a lot of things, dear Carthus.” He said. “I have burned with the drive and intellect to exact my revenge for even longer than that. Ever since the murder of my mother at my father’s hands, I sought answers to my suffering. Leda Lettiere’s assassination plot gave me the chance to attain my own power and knowledge, separate from my father. However, without Norn, I would not have been able to coerce Asan into giving up this device in exchange for her life. Norn wanted me to have this, so don’t worry– the information you are seeing is not anything she fears me knowing. This version of EDEN is significantly out of date with modern events. But it contains more than enough.”

“So there’s a system out there with more information? Is that it then? Do you desire it?”

“No. It’s ancillary– I merely wanted you to have context for what I’m about to say next.”

Erich paused for a moment. His fingers played about the globe shining in his hands.

In the main screen, the woman bowed, and in her place, an image appeared.

A slender man, extremely pale, with angular cheekbones, smoldering red eyes, and very long white hair, dressed in a coat like an old fashioned dandy. It was not in fact one image, but as soon as Carthus realized, the man appeared in other settings. Wearing a crown, a royal scepter and a red and gold cape. Standing at the head of great processions. Upon a throne, in a room Carthus recognized quite immediately as the throne in Heitzing, in the Palatinate. In all subsequent images, his face was utterly deemphasized, either his crown, his hair, or even hoods, pulled up over him, masking his features.

“Azazel Nocht.” Erich said. “Founder of the Imbrian Empire. Our very own Emperor Nocht I.”

There was a certain vitriol in his voice, as he added additional epithets.

“Perverter of our world’s history. Deceiver of our people. Architect of all our tragedies.”

As if on cue, another image of Azazel Nocht appeared–

Standing between what looked like the blue-haired woman in the EDEN, and a second, dark-skinned and dark haired woman. All three of them in white coats. Azazel Nocht did not appear as much of an Emperor in these images. He seemed like a rather ordinary man in this context. There was a computer behind them, and each of them had a globe in their hands like that which Erich was holding in his hands.

“Azazel Nocht used his authority to invent the history of the Imbrian Empire from wholecloth. All of the customs, bigotries, and contradictions which we suffer are a result of his twisted imagination. At gunpoint he suppressed the true history of our world. He elevated himself to Emperor through force and ended the Age of Strife with weapons we consider ordinary in our time. But back then, the idea of warring with each other underwater at the scale in which he did it, was alien, to the little warlords and despots that had arisen from the fall of the surface world. Nocht is the demon at the heart of our original sin. And these harlots who lived through it either gave him the power to do so or stood aside and watched.”

Carthus was again unable to speak. What could he say to this?

His beloved Erich was more impassioned than he had ever seen him.

Erich trusted him to support him, entrusted him with this secret–

But it had to be madness, sheer madness. This whole situation could not possibly be true.

One man did not an Empire make. Not without subjects; not without some consent.

There was no grand conspiracy that could have buried history wholecloth to this degree.

Azazel Nocht was taught to them as a legendary figure, near-mythical. But never alone. He mustered his Royal Guard and the Imbrian Carabineers. His forces suppressed the bandits, ended the era of warlords, and it was him and his Council of Lords, not him alone, who founded the Imbrian Empire. Chosen to lead by his peers; vanished from the world when his time came, leaving his sons to guide the Empire.

Was that history truly an invention? Then why did it make more sense to Carthus than this?

“Carthus, if Azazel Nocht can do this, why can’t I? Why can’t I tear down the false history which he created, and recreate the true history of the world? Superimpose truth over his falsity and return order to the world he brought chaos to? All that I need are the conditions that allowed him to create history. My own Age of Strife, and the unquestionable military power to end it on my terms and write the history myself. My father’s Reformation failed because he did not grasp that the very root of Imbrian identity is a lie, a wicked lie of hundreds of years, supported by generational trauma and brutal, elitist power.”

“Erich–”

Carthus’ eyes started to tear up. He did not understand what was happening.

Had something changed in his beloved Erich? Was the pressure finally getting to him?

He didn’t understand, and his frustration came out as gentle, vulnerable tears.

Erich hardly noticed this change in his countenance. He was smiling– bound up in passion.

“Carthus, in the fragmented memories contained in the EDEN, I pieced together the truth myself. The truth as witnessed by the craven people who stood aside and allowed Azazel to toy with all of our lives. The Sunlight Foundation, an ancient conspiracy bent on restoring the surface world– but they don’t understand. As they obsess with the sky outside the ocean, they don’t realize that the true history can be recreated right here. If Azazel created a false world in the Imbrium, why can’t I create a true one?”

His fingers deftly moved about the globe, generating a different image.

EDEN, the woman on the screen, briefly appeared, bowed again, and an image of the globe appeared. A speculated map of the surface world as it existed over a thousand years ago– despite the sheer seismic potential of such a discovery, it did not seem a daunting proposition to Erich, who looked upon it as if he was seeing a work of art that he fully grasped the meaning of. It was a map of an alien world. Rather than the multiple polities of the ocean that Carthus knew, this ancient map of the world had the names of a few places and continents, but politically, it was clearly labeled to contain one overarching entity.

An entity called “The Aer Federation.”

“Carthus, I have been waiting for so long to tell another soul about this. This knowledge does not trouble Norn or Yangtze, but to me, I see this perfect world, and I despise the fragmented image of it that Azazel Nocht gave to us. I despise him for using his power for his own selfish ends to divide and conquer the week, and not to unite our world as he rightfully should have. Carthus– will you join me, in recreating this world? The One World Government of the Surface– the Aer Federation. I know you have a pure and innocent soul. Do you accept the truth that I want to create, and reject the falsity in which we now live?”

There was nothing Carthus could say to that.

He was shocked, he did not know what to believe. But he still wanted to love Erich.

So with an addled mind and a whole heart, he meekly replied.

“Of course, Erich. I trust you– you are the finest of Lords. Follow your heart. I will do so as well.”

Only half understanding what had transpired– but unable to ever give up on his love.

And that was all that Erich needed to hear. He had permission from his angel now.

All of the evils, real or imagined, that he wanted to slay, would have quivered, at the grin which he wore at that moment. Erich had the face of a man who had achieved a pivotal victory, despite no battle having been fought. Or maybe a battle was fought and Carthus could not see it. He began to fear he had tipped the scales in a battle inside Erich’s self. And that he did not know the effect of his words and actions.

With a dismissive wave of the lord’s hand, Eden disappeared from the main screen. Erich left the side of the bed and instead sat down at his desk, and tightening his robe around his chest, made a call.

Carthus pulled a blanket around himself, but he was not visible on Erich’s screen.

He barely saw the screen. There was a round face, light brown, with long dark hair.

“Yes? What is it?” There was the voice of a woman. “Yangtze said you’d call but–”

Erich interrupted her. He spoke coolly and with great confidence.

“Potomac. Go to Schwerin Island and start a Core Separation. We need the origin pylon from it.”

Carthus’ heart leapt. Schwerin, the imperial summer palace of legend and tragedy–

Separating the Core Pylon from the station would require its total destruction.

“After you’ve separated the core, transport it to Bremen to begin the Gryphon Project. Are we clear?”

On a corner of the screen, something appeared–

–like a diagram of a ship, cylindrical, winged, built around the core?

Potomac sounded casually annoyed, as if this was busywork and nothing grand.

“Ugh. Fine. Whatever. But this will take months. You better not keep breathing down my neck.”

She cut off communications at that point.

Erich looked– so satisfied with himself.

Like a shackled man once freed, realizing he will not sleep in a cage another night.

At that point, Carthus felt, for the first time, that in his quiet and supportive love for Erich, he had made an incredible mistake. And that he lacked the courage to say anything to reverse it. That perhaps, he had the entirely wrong influence, on the Great Man with whom he wished dearly to go down into history.

What would that history even look like from now?


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.14]

Sitting in a corner of a room she never left.

Alone.

Everything was dim. Her stomach was rumbling. She hardly understood why.

She hadn’t the words, at first, to ask why she was trapped here.

Trapped in a hole in the rock in a pit that led straight to hell.

“Princess.”

They called her that– a word meant to evoke the legacy she had been bequeathed.

Those who called themselves her servants waited on her and bowed their respect.

But she was small, grey, skinny, and hungry. Her tail was the biggest part of her.

Spending her days huddled in the dark in pain, waiting miserably for food or drink.

When she ate, it was bony fish, vent worms.

Things that had no taste to her but staved off the pain of hunger.

Until one day, a traveler fed her bread.

Then the fish, the worms– they disgusted her. Even eating became painful.

“You can call me Ganges. I come from very far away. I wanted to see you.”

She came and she left hardly remembered– and the world was dimmer for it.

Astra–

Her name when she wasn’t “Princess” was Astra Palaiologos.

And every time the outside world intruded on the prison in which she was kept, it brought with it nothing but pain. Because it was so grand, so vast, everything in it so magnificent in scale that it made the dim, deep hole into which she was cast, 3000 meters below, the surface, all the darker, all the more meagre. She wished she had never tasted bread, never learned of the world outside the abyss, never learned of outsiders and the Empire from which they hailed, never learned of the Kingdom of Katarre that should have been hers, but which was taken. Never learned that all her useless retainers had failed to save her parents and brought her here to hide until she died. Never learned about duty, fealty, responsibility.

Never learned that, perhaps, she was created in a way where she might not ever die. That perhaps, this experience of life would last forever.

She wished she had never learned–

“You’re a very special girl. I hope that you can live in peace, Astra.” Ganges had said.

Astra looked up at her with dim eyes that saw only enough light not to go totally blind.

She reached her hands out to touch, desperate, weak, addled by malnutrition–

What she really wished was that Ganges would’ve never existed. That she was dead.

In a sudden fog of color that old, painful memory gave way to a new one.

A room, broad and vast, high-ceilinged, blue and green carpet streaked red.

Light had been shut out of it save for a few emergency LED flashers.

Standing at the end with a line of corpses behind her.

Before a throne, before which, a man groveled before her bloodsoaked body.

She was not Astra– she had buried that name with the rock that these men destroyed.

She loomed over Him. Blond, clean-shaved, in the prime of his life, silk-dressed, eyes wide and red with tears, on his hands the blood of a guard that had been smeared nearby and could not protect him. Upon Him the colors of his dynasty, blue and green, and the semiconductor of fate that calculated all outcomes and became the heart of industrial society. Konstantin von Fueller– Emperor of Imbria.

“Please, I beg you–”

“Be quiet.”

“A being of such miraculous power as you, surely, you have mercy in you?”

“Not for you.”

She raised a hand, and in an instant, the blood, the sweat, from all around her, congealed and crystalized in her grip as a great, jagged red and clear spear. She hefted the weapon and put the sharp end close to Konstantin’s forehead as if gauging the distance for a thrust. He stared at her, unwaveringly. He was in tears, shaking, but he looked at her, locked eyes with her, unmoving. She didn’t know whether it was a challenge, “kill me while you stare me in the eyes,” or simply a show of witless panic.

He began to speak, his voice cracking, spitting through strong sobs– and she allowed it.

“Had I the power you command, I promise you, I swear upon god and family, I would have done everything I could to prevent whatever befell you and brought you before me. I wish every day that I was a stronger man and could end the atrocities happening all around me. I know not how much you have suffered, only that we all have– but I beg you, please, allow me even a single day of life with which to right all of these wrongs. If you kill me, I can do nothing for anyone. Please, have mercy. Please.”

She scratched across his forehead with the sharp tip of the spear, drawing blood.

Blood which incorporated into the blade making its edge glint with a mirror sheen.

“You have no idea– I have already given you so many more days of life. So many.”

Her power had stopped the powerful Shimii tyrant Mehmed from annihilating Imbria.

And to what end? Killing him hadn’t ended the wars and slaughter. It had saved nobody.

All it did was liberate Mehmed’s enemies– and subject Mehmed himself to atrocity.

Those people she supposedly saved were oppressed, fearful and dying every day.

Despite the supposed authority and protection of the so-called Emperor they served.

“Then I apologize deeply; I knew not that I should reward your heroism.” Konstantin said.

He was so pathetic. A weak, helpless man trapped in this dim corner of the ocean.

Waited on hand and foot and dubbed king of a country tearing itself apart in front of him.

“Fueller,” she practically spat out the name, “why should Imbria live even one more day?”

Konstantin stared up at her. He slowly rose from his groveling and sat before her.

Legs crossed, head bowed, hands clapped as if in prayer– still begging.

“Because its people don’t deserve this era of chaos. And we can end it– we can reform it.”

“‘We’? That is a lot of people, Fueller.”

Her grip on the spear wavered just a little. Had she struck in the heat of the moment, before thinking, she would have just killed him. But now, she was thinking– would killing this man solve anything? Was it as easy as finding the right man to kill? If not Mehmed, then him? If not him then who?

Could she really revenge herself fully on this man she had never met nor seen before?

Without the violence affording her momentum– what would she do?

She had abandoned her home, her name, and the companions she had made.

“When Emperor Nocht slew my father unjustly, I acted rashly to avenge him.” Konstantin said. “I was foolish, I didn’t understand the scope of the violence I was setting in motion. I didn’t understand the truth of the challenge I issued when I killed that man. I didn’t realize that killing that man wasn’t the end of my suffering or the start of a revolution by itself. I didn’t know what it meant to revitalize this state or reform its foundations. I still don’t– but I can’t escape it now. I’ve set a great violence into motion.”

He reached out to grab the edge of the spear. It bled his palm. He held it to his head.

“If you kill me– you won’t be able to escape the pull of this vortex either.”

She gritted her teeth. Frustrated– frustrated with herself. Hopeless, without vision.

“If you let me live– if you join me. We can set things right. End the bloodshed. Build up the nation. Protect the people. I called my movement the Fueller Reformation for a reason. We have to stop the violence, along racial, religious lines, nations, castes. We have to reform the state. What is your name?”

She didn’t have a name.

“Norn.”

It was an old story told by someone she had hoped to forget.

Konstantin’s face lit up with a smile.

“Norn, the weaver of fate. Of course. Of course you are. Norn– we can do this together.”

Upon that scene which she was watching over as if peering from her own shoulder–

A voice intruded, a voice belonging to neither of them.

“Why did you believe him?”

“Because I wanted to. Because I had nothing else I wanted to believe in, over him.”

“My darkest shame is that I believe you should have become Emperor in his place.”

“Your darkest shame should be dragging me out here after Ganges told you to leave well enough alone.”

“You were the only one who could keep the world from ruin. Then, and maybe now, Norn.”

“You are always pushing others to take responsibilities that you refuse, Euphrates.”

Norn von Fueller moved away from the throne.

As her cheek turned on the scene unfolding behind her everything melted into color.

Euphrates stood before her in the void of the aether as if barring her way.

“You taught me too well, and I made the same mistake that you made with Yangtze.”

Norn locked eyes with Euphrates.

That blue-haired, fair-skinned girl in her lab coat, vest, and pants–

Shuddered in place. Shaken. That impenetrable armor of her ethicality began tearing.

“That’s an utter mischaracterization. You don’t know anything about me.”

Norn smiled. “No. It’s the whole truth Euphrates. It’s why I wanted you to see him. Konstantin turned into a brother to me. I did once, truly believe, that I could entrust the world to him. Not because he himself was so convincing or capable. But because I didn’t want responsibility for the world.”

She approached Euphrates, descending on her, jabbing her index finger like a knife on the shoulder between emphasized words, words raining like blows of the icy spear she once turned on Konstantin. “Euphrates, I wanted the world to rest solely on his shoulders. I wanted to congratulate him if the world was saved, and I wanted to excoriate him if it was destroyed. In the exact, same, manner in which you gave up your precious Sunlight Foundation to Yangtze, whom you can no longer face up to. You wanted to laud her achievements and to curse her deviations, but most of all, you wanted to remain a third party to the colossal responsibility you laid on her shoulders. You crowned her like I crowned Konstantin.”

Her grinning face within inches of Euphrates’ pale, sweating, choked expression.

“You are not here to save anybody. You are not here to stop me. Because those would be the actions of someone taking responsibility. You are here, Euphrates, to defray responsibility. Onto me, or onto Tigris, or onto whomever can confront the situation while you pretend to be the hero in the final accounting. This is the perfect power for you to wield. A power you can turn on someone to prevent you from acting.”

Her final poke of the finger shattered Euphrates’ shoulder as if she was made of glass.

A reflection of her soul. Breaking apart, speechless, demoralized, mentally defeated.

Norn had finally figured out her trap. And all around her, the void in the aether collapsed.


“–ordnance penetrated to the social module. No casualties, nobody was there.”

“I can still feel it shaking. Was it mitigated properly?” Adelheid said.

“Exterior breach sealant and flood mitigation was unsuccessful. Isolation was successful on the social pod, it is sealed, and flooding did not spread. Shield is down over that area. It will need immediate maintenance. For safety reasons, I recommend sealing off the officer’s habitat.”

Adelheid and one of the drones were assessing the situation. The Pandora’s Box had struck them.

Despite Hudson’s supposedly impenetrable shield– that cat always oversold everything.

Norn herself was bound up in a thought for a moment.

Unbidden thoughts of Konstantin von Fueller.

Her bridge crew was speaking up, but their voices felt distant to Norn for a moment.

She felt the return of her aethereal form to her material body like she was rid of a migraine that she had been enduring. It was a lightening, liberating feeling, like a plastic sheet that once restricted her movements was peeled off her skin. She had bested Euphrates in a mental contest– if it wasn’t for the fact that it was just an extension of herself, she would have thanked her aethereal self for her help.

“Norn, your eyes aren’t glowing red anymore. Are you alright?” Adelheid asked.

Norn shook her head and ran her hand down the bridge of her nose.

“As alright as I can be.”

While this was a positive development, the situation was still grim.

They had underestimated the mercenaries.

Norn had entered the battle with an overabundance of confidence. Her troops would lack in cohesion from never working with each other, but they had the right gear and decent skills. She believed them capable enough to hold off or sink a bunch of bandits in laundered Union gear. Now, however, she was sure her enemy were not such lowly peons– these were likely Union soldiers in disguise. Though they lacked cohesion too, they had experience and innovative tactics when cornered. Norn had been focusing mainly on Selene. That girl was outmaneuvered utterly and about to make an enormous mistake.

Her enemy must have unlocked their own psionics, to have stood a chance.

Perhaps Euphrates had trained all of these people– though that was not like her at all.

Nevertheless, Norn had to cut her losses now. Fighting to the death was pointless. But she also had to prevent a rout of her forces. De-escalation and an orderly retreat could still be in the cards.

“Selene, stand down. You are not authorized to fire a cartridge.”

On the main screen, the Jagdkaiser’s forward camera feed broadcast back to the Antenora via an intermediary relay buoy. Norn saw the machine’s arm, extended and ready to fire. Between Selene and her enemy stood one of the mercenaries, along with the Grenadier of Sieglinde von Castille. They were trying to dissuade Selene from firing. And the girl hesitated just enough for Norn to intervene.

In the next instant, Selene’s face appeared on the Antenora’s main screen. Sweat-soaked, red eyed. On the part of her neck visible over her suit, the sinews glowed with a rainbow gradient over the main artery. Her outer irises glowed with the same colors, and had developed a fractal pattern to their outer edges.

Tell-tale signs of overdosing on Yangtze’s psynadium drug to boost her psionic tolerance in combat.

“Norn, I have her.” Selene whimpered, near breathless. “I have them! I can kill them all!”

“You are not authorized to fire a cartridge. Your chassis is unstable. You would die too.”

“I don’t believe you! I can survive it! And if– I don’t care if I die! I’ll wipe them all out!”

Adelheid averted her gaze. This was a low, painful moment for Selene.

Norn shook her head at the girl on the screen.

“You’re not the only one who has lost face here. We are going to retreat; this entire situation was ill-advised, and I will have restitution for it. Selene, live to make them taste a future defeat. All corpses are the same in death. It is only in life that you can distinguish yourself. Thrash, gnaw and bite for every second of life you can to spite your enemies. Trading life for glory is for fools.”

Selene visibly gritted her teeth. Her eyes were overflowing with tears.

Hunched over her control sticks, ready to annihilate the enemy and herself in an instant.

Norn feared the worst for a moment; but Selene fell back on her seat, gaze averted.

Her pride as someone who viewed herself superhuman had been wounded.

Thankfully, she was not so far gone as to fully forego reason for violence.

“I have no doubt about your abilities.” Norn said. “Pull back. We’ll talk later.”

At that moment, Sieglinde von Castille also appeared on the main feed.

“Milord, you must retreat from this foolish endeavor while you have the chance.”

Norn narrowed her eyes at the defeated ‘Red Baron’ and scoffed.

“Don’t lecture me. Go talk to your intrepid leader about retreat if she’s still alive.”

“I’m not unaware of the responsibility we bear for this. I swear I will stop her.”

In that moment Sieglinde’s face disappeared from the main feed.

And shortly thereafter appeared another face, the video initially garbled–

Adelheid gasped; even the drones looked at it with a muted disbelief.

“Something is connecting to us. Unknown protocol, but we can try to next-nearest decode.”

“Interesting.” Norn grinned, leaning her chin up on one fist. “Monitor, don’t block.”

It was definitely the Pandora’s Box– because Norn knew the silhouette trying to broadcast.

When the communication was accepted, and the picture clarified completely–

Long purple hair, a slight frame in a chaste blue and green dress, bright indigo eyes that looked just a bit older than before, but cheeks still just a bit baby-soft. Princess Elena von Fueller.


Elena quietly panicked in her room as the bearing monitor displayed a familiar Ritter-class.

The Antenora was the flagship of the Fueller family. Of course she had seen it before. She had even ridden inside it once or twice. The physical ship was different now, it used to be a Prinz class and the flag was moved to the new Ritter– regardless. Her head was going at a hundred kilometers per hour trying to make sense of it. Was that really Norn von Fueller after her? What did this mean for their journey?

In her mind it could only, possibly, mean one thing.

Gertrude had survived their last battle; she was sure of that already.

Tragically, this had to mean Gertrude was back a second time.

And the Union soldiers would kill her.

Around her the ship shook. Ordnance detonated around the Brigand, an almost per-minute quaking that at times was violent enough to nearly knock Elena out of her bed. Lights flickered, her stomach churned. Surely, the Brigand was giving as good as it was getting. In her dim little metal room, she rubbed her hands together, wept, her voice caught in her throat. What could she possibly do about this?

How could she stop it?

She gritted her teeth, hating herself fiercely.

“I’m so stupid! Powerless; useless! I can’t– I can’t do anything but sit here and cry! Everything I love, everyone I care about, are all going to be killed because of me. Is it really true that all I can do is sit here? Sit here crying and suffer this over and over? Whether I die or Gertrude kills me– I can’t imagine the suffering this useless battle is going to cause. I have to do something– I have to. I have to!”

Gertrude would keep coming after her. Nothing would deter her.

There was nothing in the world Gertrude loved more than her.

Gertrude Lichtenberg was hers. Her companion, her friend, her knight, her hope, her love.

It was Gertrude who was supposed to save her from everything, right?

But–

“That’s why I’m so useless! That’s why all of this is happening!”

Elena had always been powerless. She always needed someone to rescue her.

And those people put themselves in danger again and again.

Not just Gertrude; but Marina, and even Victoria, and–

Bethany.

Her weeping and sobbing intensified as she remembered her lively nag of a maid.

Bethany had died, she had died and was gone and would never come back.

Because Elena was powerless to do anything.

Powerless to see the danger looming around her. Powerless to take precautions or defend herself. Powerless to get herself out of danger when it came. She was a burden on so many people who gave everything they had for her sake. Like a poisoned chalice, passed around the hands of anyone unfortunate enough to know her. Now it was the crew of the Brigand who was unfortunate enough to be passed the cup. But out there, everyone was taking a long drought of the poison now regardless.

Gertrude would fight no matter what; and the Brigands would unknowingly defend Elena.

Until everyone died, each one to protect her from the other.

It was too cruel. It was too evil a fate to allow to pass.

Elena stepped up from her bed–

In time for another explosion to knock her to the floor.

Falling on her face, groaning, lifting herself up on her hands.

Teeth clenched. Her arms and legs hurting, feeling like she would heave up her lunch.

She could have stayed on that floor and moped, but she slowly lifted herself up.

Running on an anxious strength drawn from nowhere and everywhere.

Amid the rumbling, she searched under her bed.

Marina had few possessions, but she did have a few things of use–

Cosmetics, and clothes. She always had a lot of clothes around to disguise herself.

Marina was taller and broader-shouldered than Elena, but she found a dress that was a lot closer to her own size among the cocktail clothes, blue and green, long-sleeved, and modest, like formalwear for a family outing. The colors reminded Elena of the Fueller family regalia. She also found a product to remove the black hair dye. As quickly as she could, she washed her hair, dressed up and set about her course.

Walking out of her room moments later, she was no longer “Elen” the analyst.

She told herself: Elena von Fueller was formally stepping into the UNX-001 Brigand.

Out in the hall, a group of sailors took a lingering look at her but said nothing. They were running down the halls checking for damage, testing the electronics, crawling into the walls to check for leaks. Farther down the hall Elena could see activity near the bridge. There were a few people together, moving someone on a carried stretcher. By the time she arrived, there was only Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse guarding the door to the bridge. They waved at her as she arrived but were still staring.

“Uh, hey!” Klara said, “Nice dye job! Purple looks good on you!”

Zhu smiled briefly at Klara’s remark, but then put on a more official face.

“Sorry Elen, the bridge is kind of in chaos right now. You shouldn’t bother them.”

Elena took in a deep breath and made herself speak.

“I know this will be a hard pill to swallow, but I think I can stop everyone from fighting.”

She had not come up with a better excuse than that.

Elena was not a grand orator– all she could do was be honest and try to keep calm.

Klara and Zhu glanced at each other briefly. More concerned than angry or suspicious.

“Elen, it’s a boulder sized pill to swallow. It’s the hardest to swallow pill ever.” Klara said.

“I don’t mean to disrespect you, but you were acting erratic in the last battle too.” Zhu said. “So tell us what you’re thinking, but we can’t let you be disruptive in the bridge for no reason. I’d like to think we’re all friendly, and we like you, but Klara and I need to do our jobs properly.”

“I understand but–”

“She’s the princess of the Imbrian Empire, Elena von Fueller.”

Behind Elena, a girl approached from the direction of the brig, where the party from earlier had gone. She must have been with them. Dressed in a nun’s habit, with w-shaped eyes, dark-pink skin, and long purple hair, some of which was wriggling at the side of her head. Diaphanous purple and blue fins wiggled atop her head. She waved and smiled and confessed to Elena’s secret without any prompting.

Everyone, Elena included, stood speechless for a moment.

“They wouldn’t know!” Maryam Karahailos said, bubbly and cheerful. Two long, thick pieces of her hair that ended in little paddle-shapes, pointed at Klara and Zhu independent of the sister’s hands. “Because they are new to the Empire, but I recognized you the moment I saw you! I’m glad you survived!”

“Maryam, this chick got some hair dye and contacts. She’s not a princess.” Klara said.

“Why don’t you let her on the bridge so the Captain can decide.” Maryam said.

Elena did not know why Maryam was suddenly helping, but she felt her heart lift.

She had one ally in here at least! Elena tried to press the security girls alongside Maryam.

“Klara, Lian, please, please let me talk to the Captain! I can explain everything!” She pleaded.

Zhu Lian grunted brusquely. “I am doubly not letting you on the bridge for this.”

Molecular Control.

Had Elena heard Maryam say something? She thought she had, but–

Klara and Lian’s eyes flashed briefly red– was Elena seeing things now too?

Was she really losing her wits? When she most needed to keep it together?

It reminded her of Vogelheim, of Victoria, but the energy she felt was so brief.

And so vastly powerful.

Then, suddenly, Klara and Lian both sighed heavily, and visibly dropped their guard.

Maryam really hadn’t moved a muscle. She was just smiling at them the whole time.

Was she really–?

“Fine, but if the captain tells you to leave, you damn well better.” Zhu Lian finally relented.

Elena could hardly believe what she was seeing. But she thought she knew what it was.

They started to move from the way, and in her desperation, Elena simply accepted the boon.

“Whoa! Hey, the sister, she’s–”

Klara pointed at Maryam with a sudden shock on her face.

“Oh, this? It just happens sometimes.”

Maryam’s nose had started bleeding heavily. Dark, inky blood trailed down her lips as she spoke.

Her words slurred slightly. Her legs clearly began to turn to jelly.

Zhu Lian stepped forward and held her steady. Maryam’s once sharp gaze started to trail off.

“What happened to you?”

“It’s nothin’– It’s nothin’–“

“No it’s always something around here.” Lian said, taking Maryam’s arm over her shoulder and helping her walk, even at Maryam’s increasingly slurred protests. “I’ll take her to medical, I think she might’ve taken a knock when she was helping Valeriya and Illya carry that Euphemia lady away. There’s been a lot of quakes and she looks like she’s made of jelly, she could have a concussion. Klara, keep an eye on Elena. Let her on the bridge but if nobody cares about her story, you gotta get her out, understand?”

“Duh. Don’t treat me like a bimbo Lian, just go.”

Klara smiled and shushed Zhu Lian away.

Gently, Zhu Lian urged Maryam to take small steps back down the hall with her.

Elena turned to Klara, with a sense of disbelief surrounding everything that had just happened.

However, she finally had an opportunity. Maryam– she would have to talk to her later.

Right now, she was closer than ever to a threshold that had felt impossible to cross moments before.

“Okay, the stage is yours, Princess.”

Klara took a deep breath, opened the bridge door, and stepped in.

Walking in behind her, Elena saw all kinds of inscrutable data and maps and video on the vast main screen, officers hard at work on the three tiers of stations in the descending bridge. At the top, just off of the door, was the Captain’s and Commissar’s chairs. They had been whispering to each other. Ulyana Korabiskaya, the gallant blond Captain, turned to her with gentle confusion.

She looked her up and down, clearly surprised by her attire and hair color.

“Elen? Is that Elen the analyst?” Ulyana said.

Elena was briefly reminded of Bethany. Maybe every pretty older woman did.

There was something comforting there. She wanted to believe the Captain would understand.

“Sorry, Captain, this lady’s got something to say to you.” Klara said.

For a moment, the bridge shook as another shell exploded somewhere near the Brigand.

Ulyana Korabiskaya turned to the main screen, gripping her chair tightly.

“God damn it, they just don’t quit. Keep shooting! We have them on the run!” She said, before turning back to Elena. “We’ve got a bit of a situation here analyst. What do you need me for? I applaud your new look, but this is a very critical moment. If you’re inquiring about McKennedy, she is alive.”

“No ma’am– I’m here to turn myself in.” Elena said suddenly. “I’m– I’m the one that they want, Captain.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah Bashara both were now staring fixated at her and then at Klara.

Nervous, Elena performed a curtsy. “I’m Elena von Fueller. The Inquisitor and the Praetorian are after me.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah turned to each other, blinking mutely. They turned back to Elena.

For a moment they just stared. Their lips moved very slightly, but the words aborted every time.

“You can ask Marina McKennedy to confirm, ma’am.” Elena said. An awkward smile, shrinking a step back.

At the same time as each other the Commissar and Captain brought hands up to their faces in despair.

“Ya Allah!” Aaliyah mysteriously cried out, lapsing into some Shimii saying out of consternation.

The Captain then shouted a strange archaic curse: “When it rains it fucking pours!”


“It really is a small ocean, isn’t it?”

On the Brigand, the brig was not very spacious, as there was not much thought given to the capture of prisoners given the mission they have been given. There was one larger containment area behind bars which could hold about five or six people humanely, or up to twenty in very inhuman conditions; and four personal containment cells each for one person, each of which could be made lightless, soundless, padded, and individually temperature controlled. There were no illusions as to their ultimate purpose.

Illya and Valeriya had moved “Euphrates” to one of the individual cells and laid her on the fold-out bed, which could be locked to the wall if they were intent on being really cruel to whoever was inside. There was no better place to put her for now, as she was stable, unconscious and under suspicion. “Tigris” joined her soon after in an adjacent cell. She had agreed to this and did not resist arrest.

But Valeriya and Illya had a secondary concern while they went about this task.

And that secondary concern was clearly concerned about them too.

Xenia Laskaris eagerly awaited them on their way out of the brig. Submachine gun slung around her shoulders, a magazine held between her gloved fingers. Her antennae flicked with recognition.  

“Don’t worry,” she said immediately, “They aren’t paying me enough to do anything about this situation. I wouldn’t risk my neck for those two. I was honestly far more interested in getting to see you two again.”

She held out a hand. Smiling, Illya shook, and then Valeriya gave her a brief shake too.

“It’s been a while. How have you been carrying on?” She asked.

“Living with things, and without them. We were also thinking about you during this mess.” Illya said.

“Oh?” Xenia said. Her tail twisted behind her back. “Were you worried for me?”

“Worried for you, and worried about what you could get up to.” Illya said.

“Like I said, they’re not paying me enough to become a problem for you.” Xenia said.

“Good. We know how big a problem you can be, and our officers really don’t.” Illya said.

“She won’t be.” Valeriya mumbled, shaking her head with a neutral expression.

“You think so?”

“I trust her.”

“Do you?”

“She owes us.”

Valeriya put on a tiny smile.

Xenia smiled back, stretching her arms up behind her head and leaning back.

“See? And you know your lady friend isn’t easy to get along with.” She said.

“Right.” Illya smiled. “Well, if Valeriya says so, then I really have to trust you.”

“Charming!” Xenia laughed. “So, you want something from me right?”

“Of course. You know how it is.”

For both Katarran mercenaries and special operations personnel, the world was defined near entirely by transactions, and people were what they could do, what they knew, what they promised and what they owed. Exceptions were few and had to be cherished. That was why Illya held Valeriya close.

Unbeknownst to most of the Brigand, Illya Rostova and Valeriya Peterburg were no ordinary security guards. They had to support the mission of the Brigand, and it was a mission they believed in and which made sense to them. However, their identities gave them a separate sensibility from the rest of the crew.

Between them and Xenia, friendly as they were, what mattered most was how they could be valuable to each other, and help each other survive the violent underworlds in which they lived and moved. Illya believed in communism, but there was no economy and no charity for people like them, tasked with smoothing out the sharp, jutting edges of the world so that the peaceful folk only saw curves there. For special forces to exist at all, they had to be exceptions, in ways that were not fully understood by civilians. Not only could they kill others; but their lives were also forfeit the care and kindness given to others.

In training and thought both, Illya and Valeriya were not just security guards, they were beasts.

BEAST– short for “Benthic, Abyss and Station.” Parvati Nagavanshi’s concealed weapons.

It was a sacrifice that they chose naively but lived with wholeheartedly.

For the sake of another old friend; and the naive, fragile world she gave her life to protect.

Illya fixed the grinning Xenia with a calm, but resolute expression.

“We need information. I found this Solarflare LLC business fishy from the start. It reminded me of what we saw a few years ago, with the Ahwalias. So from one operator to another. I need to know how big a problem are those two going to be, and if they are involved in anything larger than corporate R&D.”

She motioned with her head toward the cells where the unconscious Euphrates and the irate but compliant Tigris had been locked up. For the moment, they were playing along, but surely they wouldn’t stay there. Those two were more than they let on. Their names, which were taken from old world mythology, laid a pattern for Illya and Valeriya. That was something they only realized when Tigris divulged her real name. But Illya had been wanting to grill Xenia about them ever since she realized her Katarran acquaintance from their sordid past was aboard– their responsibilities just got in the way.

Xenia knew the score. She had owed them something, and now she could square it away.

“From one operator to another. Because you two are honorary Katarrans to me. I can tell you a little something about a certain Foundation.” Xenia began. “As much as they’ll let the help know.”


Clouds of gas and bubbles dissipated from the waters around Goryk’s Gorge.

An eerie, tense calm settled over the former battlefield.

The Brigand’s laser network between Zachikova’s drone and those of the HELIOS had grown suddenly capable of delivering much higher fidelity communications across the entire area of combat as long as they routed everything through the HELIOS itself. Murati Nakara informed the Brigand as such, and this helped them concoct a plan to bring about a parley. Though a long shot, it proved initially successful.

Elena von Fueller’s pleas for the fighting to cease broadcast to every unit in the vicinity and to the Antenora itself. Despite the fierce fighting, no one on either side had been killed, but everyone had damage, and every Diver was running low on battery and vernier fuel. The Antenora also had a breach that was much more serious and debilitating than the damage inflicted on the Brigand, but the Brigand was much more vulnerable. In the final calculus, this made the decision to stand down far easier.

Without fighting, the momentary peace could not have been achieved.

Nevertheless, token forces on either side remained, as tension and distrust remained high. They met between the two ships in order to respond rapidly if their counterparts took any suspicious action.

On the Antenora’s side, Gertrude, Selene and Sieglinde.

On the Brigand’s side, the HELIOS’ two pilots Karuniya and Murati, Khadija, and Marina McKennedy.

Though the Union had other Divers in much better repair, they chose their forces to show some good will toward the Antenora. Out of all of them, Khadija still had the Diver in the best shape, giving the Union an advantage nonetheless. But as Shalikova pointed out to her Captain, Selene’s unit was still capable of rapid movement and possessed a strange, additional weapon that it had threatened to use on her.

So perhaps the Union advantage was not so great after all.

Nevertheless, the focus wasn’t on fighting anymore but on the awkward parley.

All of these parties which were deploy outside crowded the main screens of the Brigand and Antenora in a massive video call. Norn von Fueller and Ulyana Korabiskaya represented their ships, and Elena von Fueller was in the center, hands behind her back, pouting slightly on camera. To the side of her, in one of the video squares, Gertrude Lichtenberg’s eyes drew wide, clearly stunned. She started to weep.

“Elena. It really is you.” Her voice took a reverent tone. “You’re here. You’re alive.”

She lifted a gloved hand to her cover her mouth, clearly sobbing.

“It’s– It’s lovely to see you Gertrude.” Elena said. Shrinking a bit from the attention and the tone with which it was given. “I wish it didn’t have to be under these awful circumstances.”

“H-How are you?” Gertrude looked mildly hesitant to ask. “You’re not hurt are you?”

Elena smiled a little. “I am unhurt. They’ve been treating me fine, I promise.”

“They had better been–“

“They were perfectly gentlemanly.” Elena said. “They are actually kind people, Gertrude.”

“Right. I’ll trust you. It’s just– I’m really relieved to see you.”

“I was afraid we would never meet again.” Elena looked embarrassed to relay that fear.

“I’ll always be at your service Elena, no matter what.”

“Thank you, Gertrude.”

Both of them looked like they had so much more to say, but were awkwardly brief.

Were it possible for the two of them to be alone, they could have been much more candid.

However, in the current setting, it was impossible for the two close companions to truly bond again.

With all of the eyes watching, they could not be as intimate as they each desired to be.

Elena was just embarrassed, with a girlish flush; but the Inquisitor was clearly afflicted by her desires.

“Come back with me.” Gertrude said suddenly. “Elena, come back. Let’s talk things over tea.”

She reached out to the screen, her eyes wide, speaking breathlessly, succumbing to her emotions–

“Out of the FUCKING question, Lichtenberg.” Marina shouted suddenly, interrupting the Inquisitor. “I’m not letting you endanger her for whatever sick scheme Norn von Fueller and the Inquisition are plotting! You Imperials want her back, you’re gonna have to take her, you’re gonna have to take her from a veritable fucking army we got here! An army that has already proven they can kick all of your asses–”

“Korabiskaya, shut this embarrassing woman up or we have no parley.” Norn demanded.

Marina flew into an even more frothing rage. “FUCK you Norn! You and I have unfinished–”

“Don’t act like you have the authority to order me around, Norn.” Ulyana replied.

Nevertheless, Ulyana silently agreed with Norn and had completely muted Marina’s irate audio.

Murati Nakara, Karuniya Maharapratham, and various unrelated persons made awkward faces on the video call but otherwise remained mum. The discussion naturally came to involve only a few of the people watching: Gertrude Lichtenberg, Elena herself, Ulyana Korabiskaya as a moderator, and Norn as an interested party, and the one who seemed most likely to resume combat. Elena and Gertrude lost their moment to catch up as friends. Rather, the conversation became a tense, business-like affair.

“I don’t think we will get anywhere without first establishing what exactly is going on here. Elena, would you care to enlighten us on the situation?” Norn said. “Your disappearing act, and your subsequent actions, have led to a lot of suffering that I must now insist you take full responsibility for.”

Gertrude looked upset with Norn’s tone. “She’s the victim, Norn! What matters–”

“Shut up, Gertrude. And it’s master Norn to you.”

In response, Elena performed a deep, repentant bow on camera.

“Of course, aunt Norn. I’m sorry. I’ll explain everything.”

Watching this, everyone must have wondered what kind of person the princess of the Imbrian Empire must have been to make such a vulnerable gesture as bowing before someone– and not only that, but the lordly character of the person she was bowing to, Norn von Fueller. Nevertheless, Norn settled and allowed the princess to speak. With her voice just a bit stuttering and stressed, Elena began to recount her tale, saying what she could say and admitting to what she could admit, but with many gaps that she was unable to fill. She spoke matter-of-factly, outlining the events with as little emotion as she could.

Elena told Norn and everyone watching, a brief story of the events of her birthday; Gertrude’s visit, her brother Erich’s no-show to her party; the attack on Vogelheim; her escape with Marina McKennedy; the subsequent destruction of Vogelheim which she saw from outside only, as the station cylinder split and collapsed. She told them about Serrano. Though she knew the truth of the Brigands, she was kind and clever enough to speak only in the terms which everyone else was using, calling the ship the “Pandora’s Box” and referring to the group as “mercenaries.” In this narrative, Marina had employed them.

However–

“They have served excellently. I would prefer you cease your hostility toward them.”

Elena stuck up for them. Then of course was the part of the story everyone present knew.

Gertrude’s attacks, Goryk substation and ultimately, Norn’s pursuit, and the recent battle.

Throughout the story, Gertrude looked terribly affected. Shutting her eyes, grimacing.

As if she felt the pain Elena had at each moment and it moved her nearly to tears.

“It’s all my fault.” Gertrude said. “If I had stayed behind, I could have protected you.”

“Gertrude, of course not.” Elena said. She averted her gaze. “You couldn’t have known. I don’t want anyone to blame themselves, least of all you. You’ve always been so good to me. I am doing all this right now because I don’t want anyone to blame you or hurt you. So let me be the only one that needs to efface myself here right now. You can’t take all of my problems on your shoulders again.”

“I can’t accept that.” Gertrude said. “Elena, the only who has been hurt here is you.”

Elena looked somewhat frustrated with that response.

She ignored Gertrude for that moment and turned her attention back to the Praetorian.

“Aunt Norn, I understand that these events have caused you material and personal grief. However, at the moment, I don’t know who I can trust in the Empire. Vogelheim was supposed to be safe. The Volkisch came and shattered my world and all the little lies that supported it for me. I can’t just forget that.”

“You suspect your brother was involved.” Norn replied casually.

Elena was visibly disarmed by her tone. “I– I didn’t say that–”

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? I suspect as much. Who else would it have been?”

“I mean– Marina got a hold of the information too–”

“You don’t have to cover for him in your mind. Distrust him too.” Norn said.

Elena blinked. “I just don’t understand. You serve brother Erich, don’t you?”

Norn cracked a grin. “You and I take ‘serve’ to mean very different things. To you servitude toward the Empire is a recognition of its heavenly virtues and thus becomes a dignified duty. But I have no great respect toward the lordly qualities of individual men. Elena, right now, my position is convenient. Nothing more. My beloved nephew gets only as much as he gives to me. The Fueller Family is a useful bit of structure in my life. I am not blind to your brother’s more devilish qualities. But I will neither help you nor him in your squabbles. In fact, I’d love it if you wanted revenge on him. Then I could use you too.”

For a moment, Elena blanched. “You’re also laying claim to the throne then, aren’t you?”

“Nobody fighting right now believes that throne is worth anything. Except maybe you.”

Laying back on her chair, grinning widely, resting her cheek on one fist.

Norn von Fueller looked greatly amused by the naïve responses of her “niece.”

“All I care about is power. The throne of Imbria is a powerless fixture. You can have it.”

“Princess, it appears your aunt has made her character quite clear. She’s playing all sides.”

Ulyana Korabiskaya entered the fray with a cool-headed, motherly-sounding remark.

She turned narrowed eyes on Norn von Fueller. “However, despite my disgust, I don’t believe this is the time or place to have involved philosophical or ethical discussions. For Treasure Box Transports, the only question left unanswered in this discussion is ‘what happens from now’. And the most pertinent choice to make is whether you remain with us or join Norn instead. I have no opinion on the subject.”

Elena nodded. She took a deep breath and let out a gentle, weary sigh.

“I have been giving that some thought–” Elena said, barely squeaking out the words–

“What is there to think about?” Gertrude interrupted. “Elena, you can’t possibly be thinking about remaining with these mercenaries. How can you even consider that? I understand you did what you had to when Vogelheim was attacked, and that Marina woman and this Volgian gave you a way out. But I’m here now– you don’t need to keep paying for these mercenaries! That’s wholly unacceptable! I’ll protect you! No matter how you feel about master Norn! I’m here, and that’s all that matters isn’t it?”

Elena averted her gaze from Gertrude, unable to respond to that outpouring of passion.

“My demands remain the same.” Norn added. “I see no reason to leave Elena here.”

“Princess, they are capable soldiers with more resources than we have.” Ulyana said.

On the video, Elena fidgeted, bowing her head such that her hair hid her eyes.

“But do you trust them as much as you trust us? Or well– can you trust them?”

There were a few surprised faces as Ulyana Korabiskaya said this.

She had on a self-satisfied little smile. Norn cocked an eyebrow.

“Korabiskaya, fleecing this naive girl for more money should be beneath you.” Norn said.

“You can read into it however you want, Norn. This isn’t about you.” Ulyana said.

Norn grinned again. “I should remind you, Ulyana Korabiskaya; I didn’t sortie in a Diver during our previous confrontation. You are aware only of a fraction of the nightmares I can create for you, so don’t test me. You have no reason to be getting confident or to be pushing Elena in this conversation. All of you are breathing right now because I am limiting my involvement in this charade, nothing more.”

“Right now, I am only looking out for my employer’s best interests and nothing more.” Ulyana said.

She was not shaken at all, despite Norn’s very clear and direct threats.

Gertrude interrupted then. Raising her voice, sounding openly irritated.

“Elena, that volgian bitch is clearly trying to manipulate you!” Gertrude said. “You are too trusting, to a fault, but you don’t have to second guess yourself. I’m here. You know me. We’ve sworn oaths to each other, and I would never allow you to come to harm. I love you with all my heart! If you can’t trust master Norn, you can trust me. I will take you to the Iron Lady and you will assuredly be safe there.”

“That same Iron Lady that we bested before?” Ulyana said mockingly.

“Shut the FUCK up right now Korabiskaya!” Gertrude said. “Had it not been for the fact that I couldn’t bear to endanger Elena, whom you held HOSTAGE in your dirty little can of a ship, I would have sunk all of you in seconds flat! You wouldn’t have stood a god damn chance! I’ll boil your entire crew alive in that–

“Gertrude, you’re being awful scary!” Elena interrupted. “Please calm down! Let me speak!”

“I’m– Elena, this is ridiculous. This is completely ridiculous. You can’t–” Gertrude struggled–

“I haven’t even gotten a chance to speak and you’re already saying it’s ridiculous?” Elena shouted.

“Elena– I– I mean–” Gertrude was tongue tied. Elena shut her eyes, frustrated with her friend.

“I believe it would be helpful to clear the airwaves and let Elena speak for herself.”

Ulyana spoke up again, smiling gently. She gestured for the hesitant princess to speak.

Elena looked over her own shoulder at the captain behind her on the bridge.

Ulyana nodded encouragingly in response, visible on the video.

Again, the princess took a deep breath, with a hand clutching her dress.

She turned back toward the camera.

When she held her head high once more, she recomposed herself. She looked determined.

“Gertrude, I love you very much, and you know this. I love you in a truly unique way out of anyone I love. You’ve always been there for me, even against my wishes. I used to think it was charming. But out of the love that we have, I need you to respect my wishes now. I’m not a child; and I may not be worldly, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own desires. I’ve been thinking about my place in the world and recent events. There is nothing that I can do if I join you Gertrude– and yes, I confess, I am afraid that Norn might use me as part of some plot for the Fueller family. As the Imperial Princess, I am just an object.”

Gertrude began to speak up, but she had been muted– Ulyana had muted her as moderator.

She noticed what had happened and became clearly irate– but Elena could keep speaking.

“Gertrude, please just stop and listen to me. I, Elena, as an individual and person. I want to continue to travel the Imbrium. I’ve already seen and learned so much. I’ve met new people and I’ve had my naïve ideas challenged. But it’s not enough to just be a passenger here– that’s why I’m coming forward. I’m tired of being powerless. I can’t take people sacrificing themselves for me any longer. I don’t want to be waited on hand and foot. I don’t want to dress up pretty and receive news of more deaths in my name. I know if I go with you, Gertrude, or with aunt Norn, I will remain powerless. People will keep fighting over me as imperial Princess or using me for what that title once symbolized. So I am abdicating the position of Imperial Princess. I’ll find my own strength and my own purpose, as my own person.”

Elena fixed her gaze on Gertrude, who, unable to broadcast her voice, simply stared.

Her eyes dead and wide as if she had the air punched out of her gut.

“Gertrude, if you truly love me, then I know we’ll find our way back together. But for now–” Elena clutched her chest. Tears drew from her eyes as if the words were painful to say. But they were clearly words which she had thought for very long, painfully long. “Gertrude, bury your love for Princess von Fueller here in Goryk’s Gorge. Start over with me by loving the person I want to become instead.”

Gertrude raised a hand to cover her weeping eyes.

Elena could not bear to look, and averted her own, breaking down into sobs.

There were a few silent reactions from the participants. Of these, Sieglinde von Castille, who had been staring impassively, now looked moved herself, and raised a hand to her own lips. Khadija al-Shahara nodded her head as if excited for the girl’s determination. Selene Anahid appeared utterly dazed.

Norn grunted loudly. Her grin had turned a little smaller than before.

“That’s a lovely little speech. But Elena, whether you like it or not, because of your birth, nobody will care that you have abdicated your titles or not. You have value as an object. People will still chase you, covet you and use you. You won’t be able to escape it. It doesn’t matter what you decide as an individual.”

“Aunt Norn, I realize that you were quite right, when you said the throne of Imbria is powerless.”

Elena’s gaze turned from Gertrude to Norn. In turn Norn fixed her own gaze back on the girl.

Despite those imperious eyes clashing with her, Elena never once wavered.

Wounded by the words she had to say to her lover and friend, and visibly shaken by the monumental declarations she had to make, Elena, eyes still tear-stained, shoulders quivering, small and weak in the face of Norn’s confident power. And yet, her eyes once fixed on Norn’s did not once shrink away. She looked at her as if to say, that whatever spear of rhetoric Norn would launch next, she had to launch unblinking at the girl opposite her, for Elena von Fueller would not blink in response to it.

“I’ve decided that I no longer want to hold on to something powerless.” Elena said. “I will find my own power and have my own achievements. You are right, you speak more sense than you know, Aunt Norn. I realized– I had always asked myself why my father’s Reformation failed. Why, after he declared an era of change, was the Empire still so cruel and petty, so randomly, pointlessly wicked? I think– it’s because the throne of Imbria has never had any power to change anything. The Empire can’t be reformed by it.”

Her words now hardly stuttered, a confident little grin on her eyes, those shining eyes.

Even Ulyana Korabiskaya seemed to recognize the change that had gripped her.

Elena von Fueller spoke, for the first time, with a passion wholly her own.

“Elena Lettiere. From now on, I am Elena Lettiere. And I will fight to change this world.”

“Incredible. Your eyes looked just like his, when he spoke the same sort of utter foolishness.”

Norn sighed. She played it off– but there was a change in her.

Her gaze looked upon Elena not disdainfully but with a strange fondness to them.

“I believe you will suffer for your pitiful little dreams just as your father did, when he swore an oath like that with those exact deluded eyes you are making.” She said. Elena did not waver, despite this pointed criticism. Norn continued, smiling. “Elena Lettiere, I will reassess your value as a captive and your position as friend or foe when next we meet. Until then, pray you don’t see the Antenora ever again.”

Elena let out a long-held breath in relief. She looked like she would cry.

“To clarify, you’re retreating?” Ulyana asked, raising her hand as if a student in a classroom.

“We’re retreating. Go on your merry way Korabiskaya. I will also reevaluate you if we meet again. Maybe someday I’ll throw some coin at your people myself. You’ve proven– interesting.” Norn said.

Ulyana scoffed.

“Yeah? Well, I’m going to try my damn best never to see you again, so don’t bother.”

Elena spoke up with an awkward smile. “Captain, can you allow Gertrude to speak again?”

“Since we seem to have reached a productive agreement, sure.” Ulyana said.

Gertrude was unmuted. Elena looked back at the screen expectantly.

On her face was an expression that seemed both melancholy and sweet.

“Gertrude– I still love you, but I hope you understand my feelings. Let’s just–”

In response, Gertrude’s own expression was not soft and sad but furious.

With clear anger and disdain in her eyes and a tense expression on her face.

“Elena, you are mine. I haven’t come here to just let you go.”

“Gertrude–”

“I absolutely refuse this. I won’t allow this. Selene! Fire cartridge at will!”

On the main screen of the Brigand the Jagdkaiser came into focus–

Lifting its arm, the claw separating, the magnetic field brimming around the bore–

“What?” Norn shouted. “Selene, you are not authorized! That woman can’t–”

Suddenly, there was once again chaos that gripped everyone present.

Perhaps, all along, Gertrude had noticed something where nobody else had.

That Selene had been completely gone during the call, eyes glassy and dead.

That she was perhaps susceptible–

To that final desire to succeed over her inferiors.

Having heard the words she wanted to, a demented, violent grin appeared on her lips.

And with her eyes lined by a glowing rainbow fractal, she obeyed the order she desired.

Irrespective of Norn’s cries, the Jagdkaiser armed a cartridge and readied to fire.

Steam vented from the weapon-arm, a brief purple glow–

“Despicable! Absolutely despicable Lichtenberg! I won’t endure your villainy any longer!”

At the Jadgkaiser’s side a one-armed mecha appeared instantly, brandishing a sword.

With one swift slash of her vibroblade, Sieglinde von Castille chopped off the Jagdkaiser’s remaining arm just below the shoulder, the Grenadier’s vibroblade coming out the other end of the superheated launch tube a partially molten, dull stick with a sharp point. That arm which had been raised to the Brigand thrummed as if taking on a foul afterlife, steam spouting from the severed end of the launch tube.

Sieglinde was too late, to the horror of the helpless participants watching these events transpire.

Even cut off, the firing end of the claw glowed purple and red for a split second.

Before sending an erratic bolt of consuming purple lightning snaking toward the Brigand.

Even at a velocity far slower than any conventional munition, it would soon inexorably reach its target like a ravenous serpent. Agarthic energy which annihilated matter instantly, making it disappear as if it was removed from material existence altogether. There was no way the Brigand could escape it.

Everyone watched for seconds of mute horror, unable to tear their eyes from the glow.

Until two objects threw themselves in its way.

Zachikova’s drone, too slow to transpose itself in time.

And a beautiful, graceful red and white fish that had been following it–

Launching itself headfirst between the bolt of diabolical energy and the Brigand.

For an instant, the surface of the Leviathan’s body glowed with its own purple energy, hexagonal delineations visible over its skin as if it too had a shield like the Antenora’s. When the bolt crashed into the beast, it appeared that it could surmount the assault, the projectile losing much of its coherence, breaking into multiple streams of energy like water falling over a rock, dancing and flickering around the surface of its body. Then dozens of thin streams of vapor rose from all over the skin of the great creature, and these became fissures from which red, thick blood erupted from all over its body.

Despite its resistance, enough of the obliterating bolts pierced its body to kill it.

“Lichtenberg! You have befouled everything you ever claimed to stand for!”

Having subdued the Jagdkaiser, the Sieglinde charged at the Magellan.

There was no response from the Inquisitor who had begun this disastrous attack.

Overcome by the sense of what she had done, and that it had failed, Gertrude choked.

She cried out, covered her face with her hands, pathetically awaiting her end–

The Grenadier drove its broken sword through the Magellan’s head, spearing the main camera and down into the chassis, forcing the Magellan back– but there was not enough blade left there to kill the pilot deeper inside. That vibrating tip stopped just short of piercing the cockpit and killing Gertrude. There was no mistaking the intent, however. And Gertrude visibly paled at the sudden, vicious attack.

All vessels cut off their video feeds, leaving the Inquisitor alone and adrift with what she had done.

Her assassination failed, Sieglinde von Castille suddenly fled to the Brigand’s lines.

The Antenora approached to recover Selene; the Brigrand and its forces fled with the surrendering Baron.

Everyone feared a resumption of hostilities–

At that moment, however, an even greater distraction overcame this scene of chaos.


I’ll protect them, Braya. I’ll protect you.

No!

Your body is in there– I’ll protect you.

Don’t do it. Please!

Her drone had been mere meters off from the bolt–

All of her cameras filled with the light,

and the sight of her beautiful dancer struggling, succumbing, bleeding–

no no no no no no NO NO NO NO NO

Zachikova watched, screaming inside of her own metal brain helplessly.

Within a cloud of blood that majestic form she had– she had fallen in love with

Ruined, broken, almost deflated, her softness and grace shattered utterly–

Please no, please–

One of the drone’s cameras caught the slightest twitch of movement.

Of one beautiful eye turning on her with what was clearly the last of its living strength.

No, don’t leave, please–

I’m sorry, Braya–

In the background, a great geyser of brownish-red miasma erupted from Goryk’s Gorge.

Even the ships and Divers began to stir from the currents created by the rising biomass.

Zachikova’s instruments recorded truly insane levels of Katov pollution–

However, Zachikova was completely fixed on the drifting body of her dancer.

She couldn’t let her fall to the bottom of the sea and be set upon by abyssal bottomfeeders.

There was no use– no use for the body of a dead creature– but still–

Mind racing, Zachikova could not bear to part, it would be too horrible to consider.

Extending her drone’s arms, she embraced the rapidly dying body of the beautiful dancer.

Then she issued a command to the drone to return to the utility chute with the body.

We’ll meet again– Braya– I love–

And simultaneously, Zachikova ripped herself from the body of the drone.

Awakening with a start in the bridge of the Brigand.

Her head hurt as if she had torn a piece of her own skin off, having pulled her own biomechanical plug. Reeling from the ungentle separation, sweating, eyes afire, heavy breathing. Her head pounding, tears flowing from her eyes as rivers. Unbidden thoughts and emotions flooded her brain, years of emotion she had repressed and weeks of feelings she barely wanted to admit. She thought she was going crazy.

But she couldn’t let go. She had to see her again. She had to.

On legs that nearly bent out from under her–

Zachikova took off running from the bridge, offering no explanation and heeding none of the words spoken to her. She took off down the hall as fast as she could, barely seeing where she was going, past the sailors, past Klara Van Der Smidse whom she nearly shoved down. To the elevator, mashing the buttons all the way down to the first tier, cursing every second of the ride, pounding the panel.

When the doors opened she charged across the hangar, past the deployment chutes with the returning Divers, past the shuttle bay, shoving sailors away, heedless of the shouting around her. She hurried through a side door in the rear that led to a pod adjacent the lower end of the reactor room. Down a dark maintenace corridor to the dimly lit bulkhead into the drone chute and maintenance room.

Her whole body screamed with pain, her lungs tearing themselves apart in her chest.

Wiping rivulets of sweat and tears from over her eyes with her clenched fist.

Stopping, only briefly, in front of the bulkhead door.

Glancing at the monitor on the wall. Her drone returned, and the chute had been drained, sealed, and pressurized. She feverishly ordered the drone be lifted by automatic crane from the chute into the utility room with its contents, and heard the mechanisms go off. Then she paused, a sense of trepidation.

Crossing the bulkhead in front of her she would be face to face with– the remains–

Vomit rose to her throat. She grabbed hold of her mouth, fought the urge.

Even if it disgusted her– even if it scarred her– she had to see her again.

“It’s my fault she died. It’s my fault. I have to– I have to see her.”

Teeth grit hard, body tight, dizzy with nerves, hugging herself, she shoved against the door.

Sensing her, the bulkhead opened automatically into the room.

“Gahh!”

Overwhelmed by the smell of salt, brine and a horrid, fishy smell that felt like it turned to oil in her nostrils. Zachikova gagged, but a cry sounded that was not her own. Something squirmed in the dark, the only light the dim LEDs outside the door from the hall leading to the utility room. There was a puddle in the room, jelly-like melted– her head swam, senses failed eyes clearly glitched a waking dream–

Flesh. She saw flesh sloughing off — a figure cloaked in personhood lithe, draped– with–

Hair? She has hair? She has a face? Eyes, skin, limbs, breasts, horns–?

Zachikova stared, weeping, sweating, clothes clinging, skin blanched, throat burning with rising bile–

In front of her, a woman– a woman– tore something from her head and bled onto the floor.

Pale, slender, long red-and-white hair falling over her shoulders, down her back–

To the floor, where red gore pooled like the entrails of something rapidly decaying. Long-limbed long fingers grasped a curled bone-like horn, thick as a tusk, soaked bloody. Cast aside dismissively, making a clanking noise as it struck the wall. Eyes opened once shut, filled with an intellect that glinted bright in the shadow and acknowledged the terror-frozen girl at the door. She smiled. That body smiled.

“Braya.” A cooing voice came out of the woman-body. “Is it a pleasure to see this form?”


Clouds of red and brown biomass erupted out of Goryk’s Gorge like the breath of a foul titan corrupting the waters around the gorge to an unprecedented degree. A stormwind-like current blew. Visibility even with floodlights was quickly reduced to below a dozen meters, and all around them the seething mass of dancing microorganisms in the marine fog seemed to take on a new diabolical character. Dim red as though the creatures were giving the surroundings an eldritch bioluminescence, the rushing biological tide turned the surrounding sea into a vision reminiscent of hell, save for the presence of fires.

“Biomass concentration approaching 400 Katov and continuing to climb.”

“Unknown biologics on sonar. They are increasing in number and intensity.”

“Successfully recovered Jagdkaiser and Magellan, bringing in–”

Norn cut off the drones, bolting up from her seat, fists clenched, furious.

“Order the security forces to detain Lichtenberg! I am going to rip her fucking head off!”

“Begin separation for Selene!” Adelheid added. “Norn, I’ll go get the doctor.”

“Right.” Norn said, clenching her jaw too. “Be careful, she could act out at you.”

“I can take Hunter III. She should be able to stop Selene if she gets– dangerous.”

Adelheid’s voice trailed off, stifling a tiny sob. Her features had a gentle, melancholy expression of concern, brows lightly furrowed, eyes wandering. Her hands were shaking. Norn herself had a noticeable vibration in her temples, a twitch in the cheek that indicated her concern. She was neither meeting the eyes of her adjutant nor staring directly at the main screen. Both of them were shaken.

They had all been too careless, and the Antenora had been defeated.

However–

“Norn, you don’t need to project that aura of infallibility. I’m here for you.”

Adelheid tugged on Norn’s shirt gently like a red-headed cat nipping her owner’s heel.

For the first time in what felt like hours, Norn turned a smile full of love on her.

“I appreciate it, Adelheid. But I shouldn’t have been so weak from the start–”

“She’s comin’! She’s comin’!”

Norn and Adelheid turned around. There was a mad shout coming from behind them.

Backed against a corner as if something was approaching her, crawling on the ground.

Squirming, mouth hanging in horror and the red rings of psionic power around her eyes.

“Boss, I can’t stop it! She’s comin’! The Autarch! We gotta run boss!”

Hunter III raised a shaking hand at the main screen, tears rising as steam from her eyes.

On the predictive image appeared a distant, enormous shadow read by the computer as a dreadnought.


“Hey uh, I’m not used to running this, but we’re hitting like 400 Katov out there.”

Alexandra Geninov tapped on the LCD screen at the Electronic Warfare station in disbelief.

Part of what Zachikova had been doing was monitoring part of the sensor package to free up Fatima to focus on detection and early warning. However, after the failed attack by the one-armed machine from Norn’s forces, the electronic warfare officer had run out in a panic. Respecting her feelings, the Captain allowed her time alone and ordered that nobody fetch her for a few hours unless there were problems.

Alexandra Geninov had temporarily taken her place as the most computer-savvy of the officers. The fighting had completely halted and the Brigand was poised to retreat, having recovered their divers along with one unexpected addition. As the hangar assessed that situation and detained Sieglinde von Castille, the ship began to head in the direction of the Gorge, away from the Antenora and toward Rhinea.

And closer to the heart of a seething red tide the likes of which Ulyana had never seen.

Despite the rising, thickening, furious biomass all around them, the bridge was quiet.

Eerie as it was, there was an even more eerie sight which had shaken them all.

“Zachikova was clearly affected by the death of that creature.” Ulyana said gravely.

“I’m honestly affected too.” At her side, Aaliyah patted her shoulder, briefly but gentle.

They had all seen it on the main screen. It still felt like it couldn’t have been real.

At Lichtenberg’s command, a strange projectile was fired at the Brigand. That glowing purple bolt would have punched right through their armor, in one way and out the other. It was clearly some kind of agarthicite weapon, a design so evil it was unconscionable it existed. Agarthicite was the life blood of their society, but when disturbed, it could vaporize almost any kind of matter in an instant. Without ultra-dense Osmium or a miracle, that purple projectile would have bifurcated them like a hand tearing paper.

They owed their lives to that creature Zachikova had discovered, and its curious, tragic humanity.

There was no way they could have prompted it, commanded it to do such a thing.

Whatever anyone had to say about animal intelligence– it chose to sacrifice itself.

“It saved us. It really gave its life for us. What animal would do that?” Aaliyah said.

“Leviathans are pretty mysterious.” Ulyana said. She sighed. “To think that’s what it took to survive.”

“It was a miracle.” Aaliyah said. “Don’t blame yourself. We did what we could.”

“It wasn’t enough.” Ulyana raised a hand to her forehead, feeling a coming headache.

At that moment, the cat-like ears of sonar operator Fatima al-Suhar visibly perked up.

She stood up from her station, an incredulous look on her face. Ulyana took notice.

“What’s wrong now?” Ulyana asked wearily. When it rained, it truly fucking poured.

Fatima took a moment to respond. “Biologics. All kinds of biologics. Strange ones.”

As she spoke, there was a red warning flash on the main screen.

Their predictive computer drew a box around an area of the Gorge off of the side cameras.

There, it struggled pixel by pixel to render what seemed like a gigantic shadow within the red and brown cloud. Though the computer tried to label this a “dreadnought” none of the officers watching the main screen with deep held breaths could possibly believe that, seeing what looked like a distant unfurling of enormous wings, the stretching of a pointed, horned head at the end of a neck on a massive body.

From its mouth a roar unleashed that left no doubt about its provenance.

This was a Leviathan– a Leviathan larger than the Iron Lady, rising from Goryk Gorge.

And the predictive imager, able to count on only its sonar, marked dozens of target boxes around it.

These subordinates mustering around the massive Leviathan it labeled as Divers.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.3]

Despite her commissioned rank, Shalikova was not a bridge officer, and she did not report to the bridge during the alert. Her place was in the hangar, awaiting orders to deploy in her Diver for battle, and that is where she went, after sternly telling Maryam to stay in her room and out of the way of the sailors and officers.

Not that she believed Maryam would have heeded her.

That Katarran really seemed used to doing whatever she wanted.

Shalikova ran down to the hangar wearing a pair of pants and her sweaty tanktop undershirt, her hair tied up into a hasty, messy ponytail. She found several of the remaining pilots and half the sailors in similar states.

Dominika was dressed in what looked like yoga pants and a sweatshirt; Sameera had her TBT uniform pants with her sleeveless button-down half done up; Khadija had thrown her jacket on over what was clearly a lacy nightshirt, with a pair of sweatpants. Out of the regular crew, Valya was the one wearing the green, brown and black pilot’s bodysuit.

“My, my, look at you,” Khadija teased them. “How did you get ready so quickly?”

“Um, I was already down here.” Valya replied. “I was tuning up some stuff in my Diver.”

“I’ve always just gone out in what they give me. How much do you gain from your tuning?”

Valya looked bashful. “Well, every microsecond counts in a fight, Ms. al-Shajara.”

“Please, please do not.” Khadija raised pair of delicate fingers to her forehead. “Khadija.”

“I’m sorry, Ms– Khadija.” Valya averted their gaze while Khadija shook her head gently.

Murati, the squad leader, was a bridge officer in addition to a pilot and had not yet reported to the hangar, so the pilots were left in the lurch at first. Shalikova looked blearily at the scenes around her, marveling at the scale.

Covering the vastness of the lower deck was a flurry of human activity. Sailors in the dozens ferried parts, power tools and ammunition and pushed weapon racks into place using forklifts, so that the mechanics and engineers would have everything they needed at hand to run the final maintenance checks on the Divers. Mechanics ran hasty final tests on the Divers, checking the joints, the batteries, the internal computers, checking every part of each available weapon on the racks, tuning up the diamond sabres and drill lances, AK rifles and Gepard SMGs. There were a dozen people on and around every gantry and maybe two dozen per gantry moving equipment to and from stations.

Within those tall grey walls, on those bare, wide open floors dotted with splashes of lubricants and oil and grase, underneath the sterile glow of white strips of light; within this enclosure of steel, the six Divers and their gantries were the most dominating presence. All of the workshops and stations around them were like islands that seemed to gravitate around these giants they had bound to the walls. And people moved about those islands like schools of fish, in an anxious panic. Shalikova felt a sensation akin to synesthesia; as if there were colors and sounds and tastes associated not with these people but the feeling of their motion, their activity. As if halos lifted off their heads–

Shalikova shook her head vigorously. She was clearly spacing out.

At that point, the Chief Mechanic, Lebedova appeared as if she had come out from under the floor, suddenly in the middle of the crowds. She raised her hands and shouted over the cacophony in a deep, commanding voice.

“We’ve gotten word from the bridge that a situation brief is coming! Keep at it!”

Though they had briefly paused to listen to her, the workers resumed with undiminished vigor. Shalikova felt stupid standing around in the middle of all this activity, but there was nothing she could do but pilot the damn things. She would just be in the way otherwise, even more so than she was just standing in the middle of the hangar with the rest of the pilots. Her whole body was brimming with anxiety. She had been in combat at Thassal, but she sailed toward the danger with a full account of what she was getting into. In this situation, her imagination was far too free.

Meanwhile her fellow pilots were all seemingly too carefree for her own liking.

“Nika, were you working out? You look good! Flexible! Glowing with strength!”

“Who said you could call me by a nickname? And stop staring at my legs!”

“I just think you have really good definition! Show me your leg routine sometime!”

“As a matter of fact, it’s high kicks. Want me to demonstrate one right now?”

Sameera tried her luck again, but Dominika was having none of it, even in yoga pants.

“To think, for once I managed to fall asleep at 20:00 sharp, and this happens.”

“Do you suffer from insomnia ma’am?”

“Truth be told, I was just bored and lacking for company, or I’d have stayed up later.”

“Oh. Well. I see. Is that so?”

Valya tried to humor Khadija, who kept complaining with a bored expression on her face.    

Shalikova wanted to scream.

It was not even just the stupid things they said, but the sheer control of their body language.

How did these sociopaths manage to maintain their composure in this kind of situation?

Before Shalikova got an opportunity to scream, their idle time was finally at an end.

Semyonova’s face appeared on the large screens around the hangar.

Everyone in the hangar received an abridged version of the officer’s discussions.

Soon, Semyonova was replaced on the screen by acoustic predictions of an enemy fleet.

There was a brief pall of silence as the sailors beheld a diagram of the Irmingard class.

However, they were far too busy with their own strict tasks to panic for very long.

Shalikova had no such luck. She felt as if her heart had stopped in her chest.

“When did I become such a coward?” She chided herself internally.

But she still couldn’t help it. And she hated herself for being afraid in this situation.

Especially when the other pilots had much more muted reactions.

Moments later, Murati Nakara arrived from the bridge dressed in parts of her TBT uniform.

“Form up! You saw the brief; we’re going into battle. It’s the real thing.” She said.

She gathered everyone near a wall monitor, which she commandeered for a demonstration. Using a minicomputer, she swiped onto the wall monitor a projection of the enemy fleet, as it was last seen and assembled by the algorithmic predictors. A tight formation, with a vanguard of cutters and two frigates leading the flagship, which was covered by a destroyer. There was a prediction that at least eight Divers would be present as well, but not fully confirmed.

It was this point, when Murati was about to discuss her plan, that Aiden Ahwalia appeared.

He had his arms crossed over his chest, and a disgruntled expression.

Unlike everyone around him but Valya, he was wearing his full pilot’s suit already.

“Lieutenant, can you really look at this sorry ensemble and tell me I’m not ready yet?”

Shalikova rolled her eyes. Khadija practically growled at his appearance.

He seemed to have missed the irony in talking like that to a half-dressed Murati, too.

“Aiden if you interrupt me again during a briefing, I’ll demote you from Pilot trainee to Sailor for a month. You’ll get your chance someday. Listen, observe and build some character, or get ready to swab the hangar.”

Murati’s tone and the disdainful eyes of the rest of the pilots cowed Aiden into silence.

Khadija cracked a little grin.

“I want everyone’s attention on this monitor. Now.” Murati withdrew a laser pointer from the pocket of her button-down shirt and aimed it at the diagram of the fleet. All the pilots turned from gawking at Aiden to the Lieutenant. “Good. Our mission will be to draw the attention of the enemy away from the Brigand, penetrate the enemy fleet formation and inflict some damage on the Irmingard class flagship. Our weapons won’t even scratch it, so we’ll need to plant demolition charges and detonate them to breach the hull. With any luck, even if we don’t sink it, we’ll break enough electronics to keep it off our backs for now. Once the charges go off, we’ll be fleeing immediately.”

Everyone looking at the board waited with eerie silence for Murati to continue.

Shalikova had never seen this rowdy bunch actually stay so still before.

Murati had a fire in her eyes; she was speaking with confidence and strictness.

She was not shouting or overcompensating. It was as if she was in her element at last.

“Captain Korabiskaya is going to parlay with the commanding officer of the Irmingard to buy us a few minutes to deploy and get moving. It’s unlikely the fleet will take initiative without the commander’s explicit say-so, since these all look like old patrol craft from Serrano. So hopefully that will give us some time without big guns in the fray. Once we’re in the water, we’ll close in and engage the enemy in close quarters battle. They’ll have to watch their friendly fire, while we’ll have carte blanche to bring everything we got to the fight. We should prioritize disabling their Divers and any enemy Flak guns, both so we can get in and plant the charges, and so we’ll have an easier time escaping.”

On the monitor, the computer overlayed patterns around the individual ships in the enemy fleet indicating the range and possible traverse of their gas guns as well as the volume of their fire. Flak, an ancient loanword of indeterminate origin, was the term given to 20 mm gunfire from gas guns which would form the primary response by the fleet against the fast-moving Divers. Each of the smaller, slender cutters had two gas gun turrets and a primary 76 mm main gun, providing a limited Flak coverage. Both of the larger frigates had four gas gun turrets to support the covering barrage. The Irmingard had several, but the real danger was the Destroyer. Sitting between Frigate and Cruiser size, the Destroyer bristled with over a dozen turrets meant to ruthlessly defend the flagship from incoming fire.

Every Diver pilot knew to properly respect Flagships, but to fear the cover of Destroyers.

“The Brigand has three 76 mm guns on the aft, but we can’t expect the Bridge’s fire support to do our jobs for us. I’ve got a plan, but it’ll depend on all of our skills for it to work.” She aimed her laser pointer in a straight line to the Cutters at the head of the fleet. “One group will attack the cutters and any Divers around them, trying to maximize damage. That will be up to Sameera and Dominika as the heavy firepower team.” She moved her pointer up in a semi-circle around the outer edge of the fleet formation. “Shalikova and I will attack from higher up on the water table, hoping to draw out the Destroyer and engage it. Valya and Khadija will engage targets of opportunity on the opposite flank. There will be three bombs, carried by Khadija, Sameera and myself. Those are our three shots at the objective.”

Murati dropped her laser pointer back into her pocket and crossed her arms.

“You’re all here because you’re pros. You’ve been around Diver operations or studied them extensively. There’s nothing I can say that will make you ready if you aren’t. Follow the plan as best as you can, trust your instincts, protect your squadmate, and if you see a shot at the objective, seize it! Above all else, make it back to this hangar. Understood?”

“Sounds good to me!” Shalikova spoke up suddenly and sharply as soon as Murati had paused.

As if trying to release all the pressure that had built up inside her, her face lightly red.

There was a brief silence before, all around her, the other pilots nodded in accent.

“Yeah, everything makes sense.” Sameera says. “You even had graphs! That’s so cool!”

“It felt quite, official.” Dominika added in a low voice, averting her gaze from Sameera.

“You’re impressed by the graphs? That’s what’s surprising?” Murati asked, taken aback.

“Oh my, who knows what these two experienced in their backwater assignments.” Khadija sighed, pointing over her shoulder at Dominika and Sameera’s general direction. Sameera seemed not to mind but Dominika was practically glaring at Khadija for the remark. “Lieutenant, it does feel like you really covered all your bases well. And here I was, wanting to tease you the first mistake you made. Maybe next time.” Khadija winked at Murati, who averted her gaze briefly. “Of course, the old adage states that even the best plans are built to fail, so we should be careful.”

Valya merely pointed their fingers in Khadija’s direction as if to silently say, “what she said!”

Shalikova sighed. She felt more and more like she was the idiot among these idiots.

Before long, the pilots dispersed across the hangar, standing in front of their machines, and waited for the cockpits to be released by their supporting engineers. Shalikova had a moment to look up at the suit of mechanized armor in front of her, standing at more than four times her size. She had gotten into and out of machines like this dozens of times now. Whether it was training with real equipment, simulations, or combat at the battle of Thassal, it was the same. This was what she had chosen to do, she told herself. With a deep breath, she tried to ready herself for battle.

Right then, no one else on that ship, but those six pilots, could protect the rest from danger.

One life on the line in one piece of machinery, to potentially save two hundred others.

No one had ever embellished to her, the promise of death that came with piloting a Diver.

Shalikova chose this path knowingly; because it was just, because it was necessary.

Opening and closing her fist, tapping her feet, she examined her weapon to center herself.

This Strelok was very slightly different than the stock models Valya and Khadija had. Perhaps standing partway between the common, simpler shapes of the Strelok and the more extreme Cheka design, all of the armor surfaces complicating the oblong body were sharper, more angular. Its rectangular head, barely more than a box for cameras on the original Strelok, was rounded and flared to disperse water. On the back, there was an additional thruster fed through a newly introduced intake atop the cockpit, the grille almost like a mouthpiece for the head.

She wondered how many milliseconds this would earn her over Valya’s “tuning.”

Moments later, the cockpit plates spread open to admit her.

Shalikova climbed inside the Strelok and strapped herself in.

It was her first time deploying in this machine, so she took some time to adjust the monitors to her preferred arrangement: one in the center, two off to one side and three off to the other. Main forward camera was right in the middle, just like if she were strapped into an actual suit of armor with a natural viewport. She then locked the controls and then tested the tactile feel of the control sticks, the click of the buttons, the pressure on the trigger. Everything was pristine. Nothing like the well-worn training machinery she had used before. Now reasonably certain of the quality of her gear, she unlocked the controls and began the startup procedure along with her engineer.

Shalikova looked with forlorn eyes at the familiar startup screen.

She saw the Union’s standard, a plow and a sword crossed over the opaque dome of an Agrisphere.

A thousand generations live on in you,” was a saying often paired with that standard.

Most of the time, she thought nothing of it. But in that particularly vulnerable state of mind–

Shalikova could not help but think: “Zasha, are you living on in me?”

Stupid, foolish, fearful sentimentality that was useful to no one, much less herself.

For everyone’s sakes, she had to be stronger. She had to be tough. She could not waver.

Or else, she would really be nothing but a burden on the world around her.

Soon the Divers were armed, released, and made the way to their deployment chutes.

On one of Shalikova’s monitors, Murati appeared in a feed from within her own cockpit.

“Thanks for the support back then, Shalikova. I was actually a bit nervous.” She said.

Shalikova scoffed. “We all were. I didn’t do anything. You– You did fine, Nakara.”

Murati nodded her head and seemed to understand Shalikova wanted no further comment.

Deep down, Shalikova truly appreciated the silence between them as they deployed.


“Can I have a sandwich?”

Outside the door to Shalikova’s room, Maryam Karahailos found a sailor pushing along a trolley full of food.

Having eaten nothing but dried vegetables, cornmeal gruel and vitamin bars in her exodus, her eyes practically shone in the presence of an enormous tray of sandwiches, slick with cheese spread, pickles and what looked like thin slices of juicy protein cutlet. Everything was as fresh as could be cooked on a ship, lovingly assembled from scratch. To her deprived eyes this was a buffet for the senses. Her surface colors turned just a little flushed with anticipation.

“Ah, sorry ma’am, you are–?”

“I’m a VIP, Maryam Karahailos.” Maryam said. She was echoing what the Captain said to refer to her.

In truth, she was not sure what the crew viewed her role as or how they intended to treat her.

Maryam sold herself as a useful informant, but that meant different things to different people. In her travels she had been a soothsayer, a priestess, a matchmaker — whatever made sense for the people she needed to get on her side. Whatever made sense to survive. She was still thinking of what she would tell the Brigands; and with the alert, she did not know when she would be able to meet with the Captain. So for the moment, she was just, vaguely, “the VIP.”

“VIP? Sorry, I wasn’t really informed– I’m just taking these down to the hangar crew.”

“Can I have one? They won’t miss one, right?”

Maryam asked purely innocently. It seemed silly to fight over one sandwich out of a pile.

“Well, we actually counted these, so they would miss one.”

His aura was starting to harden against her.

She could tell his disposition was worsening even if he didn’t show it, she was perfectly sure of it. Aura was an additional feeling that Maryam got from people, that she associated with colors, smells, tastes, and sometimes textures in their space. Like dust in the air, or a distortion of light within fog; perceptible, but hard to describe.

Turning her head briefly, Maryam found the hall mostly deserted.

She turned back to the sailor and stared deep into his eyes.

Something in her brain just clicked.

A sensation, that lay between the purely automatic, like breathing, and actions that were technically driven by choice, but that were so natural that the locomotion surrounding them was viewed as less than deliberate. Like taking a step, or having a cough, or the turning of the eyes. For a moment there was a sense of warmth felt right behind her eyes.

Molecular Control.

Maryam overcame his mind through the oxygen he was breathing.

Traveling within that tiny current, into his blood, into his nerves, into his brain. She touched what his body interpreted as sensations, facts, thoughts. She could neither see them, nor finely control them. She had not yet perfected such a technique. Instead, she felt them, and influenced them, like a gentle pluck on the cords that sang truth to him.

The ultimate expression of her god-given mastery over the Air.

“I’m really peckish. I think they won’t miss just one.” She said sweetly, compelling him.

“You’re right. I’ll just give you mine, and I’ll come back for something else.”

The Sailor quickly handed her a sandwich wrapped in a reusable polymer towelette.

“Thank you! How kind! You don’t know how much this means to me!”

“Not a problem ma’am. It was nice meeting you. You take care now, alright?”

To make it up to him, she had influenced his aura as she released her control, tinging it soft and blue.

With his morale gently lifted, the Sailor marched the trolley on its way, whistling a cheerful tune.

I’m making people happy. Myself, and others. Isn’t that the godly thing to do?

Maryam giggled and started to nibble on the sandwich. Just as she had envisioned, it was delicious. While that creamy spread was probably less milk than it was emulsified oil and yeast, it was the first “cheesy” thing she tasted in ages, savory and satisfying. With the pickles providing a tiny bit of spice and sweetness, and the pillowy, but firm bread, and the smooth, meaty flavor of the cutlet– it was delightful. That was the best meal Maryam had eaten in months.

Well worth employing her special gifts to obtain it.

“I wonder how many of them are susceptible?”

Though she found it unconscionable (and physically impossible) to use Molecular Control on everyone on the ship, it was useful to have susceptible people here and there. Maryam had not been around enough to get a sense of the potential of the crew as a whole, but there were a lot of folks who felt like they had strong resistance, some who seemed as though they had an actual seed, and very few who seemed to have with no potential whatsoever.

One particular individual fascinated her: Sonya Shalikova. From the moment she saw her.

Sonya was–

Firstly, she was very pretty. Those eyes, her soft skin, and that pure white hair–

Her long limbs, the slight curve of her chest, her long, slender fingers–

Maryam’s purple hair and light pink skin started turning starkly red.

She had to make a conscious effort to reel herself in.

Second: she was so funny! Sonya had a sharp tongue and made a lot of scrunched up faces.

Third, she was extremely, extremely dangerous! Her senses were extremely sharp, and she surveyed her environments like a predator at all times. What was she searching for? Her indigo gaze was filled with something deep and intense– was it Lust? Dominance? That manner in which she surveyed everyone and pierced them with her eyes– there was no one like Sonya. Not on this vessel and nowhere in this Ocean. Maryam was deeply taken by Sonya.

“Sonya said not to get in anyone’s way. Well, that’s fine, because no one will complain.”

Maryam happily trotted off from Sonya’s room and up the length of the habitation block.

Ships were ships. Katarrans were born in them and many lived most of their lives in them. Small or large, they were all confining and there was no difference there. While the Brigand was cozy, Maryam was not really terribly impressed. After all, she had served a Warlord at one point. She knew what a truly ostentatious, hedonistic ship could be like. Feeling that there was not much more to see after having walked a dozen meters down, Maryam paused.

It was at that point that she saw someone coming out of a room farther ahead.

“Marina McKennedy! Hello!”

Maryam waved her arms cheerfully. She made her colors a little brighter for Marina’s sake.

“Oh, it’s you. Do you know what’s happening?” Marina said, agitated.

That G.I.A. agent tagging along. A friendless person, tall, handsome, reeking of blood.

Decade’s worth of blood. Her own blood. The blood of her past victims; the blood of loved ones.

Not that Maryam knew much about that. “I think we’re under attack.” She said simply.

“Under attack?”

Despite the shock in her voice, her aura flashed brilliantly for only the briefest instant and her face returned to its neutral, reserved expression very quickly. As if she could be surprised, but then her cool rationality brought her back as a force of habit. That G.I.A. agent always had a very sorrowful aura around her. Tinged the colors of others’ auras, as if dragging their spirits with her. Whether they wanted to be with her– not that Maryam could really tell.

“I need to go talk to the Captain. Could you do me a favor, Katarran?”

Maryam made no expression but turned her colors just a bit darker in response, to bristle.

“I’d be happy to help if you call me by my actual name and say the magic words.”

Marina crossed her arms with a low grunt.

In front of her, the G.I.A agent took a step forward trying to impose on Maryam’s space.

“Don’t be fucking childish. You’re not doing shit right now, so just help me out here.”

Such an intimidation tactic would not work. Particularly from someone with such pathetic resistance and potential. What would Marina do to her? Try to shoot her? Maryam did not like to brag. But if someone tried to shoot her, she would simply dodge the bullet. Marina stood no chance. And if she tried to hit her, she’d really find out quickly.

Still, there was no sense in returning this antagonism. Maryam needed to lie a little low.

“I’ll do you a favor from a few centimeters farther than you are right now.” She said.

Marina backed off a step. Intimidation did not work. So her dull aura turned gentler.

“Fine. Look. I need someone to make sure my analyst doesn’t get anywhere she shouldn’t.”

“You mean Elen? She looks pretty grown up!” Maryam said. Careful not to let any malice into her words. “Does she really need much looking after? And can’t you just tell her to stay in her room if so? You’re her boss.”

“Look, you and I are the odd ones out among all these commies. We should start developing some mutual respect here, okay? Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours; just go stand in the hall near her room and if she comes out, stick to her for a bit. Act chummy. Given how you act toward me, it shouldn’t be too hard for you. Deal, Katarran?”

Maryam Karahailos.” Maryam spelled out her name in a slow, mocking voice.

Marina raised her hands in frustration. Her aura shifted wildly through dull colors.

Always a little muddy, like whatever color it was had been caked in blood and petrol.

“Okay, please, Maryam. I’m serious, it would trouble me if she got in anyone’s way.”

“Sure thing Marina McKennedy! I’ll take care of things back here. You hurry on along.”

“Good. Great. Harder than it needed to be, but great. I’ll remember this, Maryam.”

Without another word, Marina brushed her shoulder past her as she continued on her way.

“Jeez, what a deplorable woman.” She really did think she had everything under control.

One tiny breeze of Maryam’s miasma and she would have been completely helpless.

There was no sense in that, of course. Nothing to be gained. Maryam calmed herself.

Using the ability of the Apostle of Air in a passion never seemed to end well.

She had been impulsive with it recently. And it had been silly, very silly, and pointless, and yet–

Maryam had tried to influence Sonya.

She had really wanted Sonya’s help and affection. Or at the very, very least, to foreclose on Sonya developing any antipathy toward her. Whenever she used her ability on someone with a strong resistance or who had a seed of potential, she could feel herself being rejected, as if her limbs had hit a wall or a door had been shut in front of her. Sonya was different. When she tried to influence her, she felt nothing. No sensation whatsoever.

Clearly it hadn’t worked. Sonya was just so powerful it was beyond comprehension.

So Maryam watched her. And thought about her. And made up little scenes with her in her own head.

Never before had she been struck with such a feeling, but she had never seen a girl like Sonya.

“Katarran Warlord” was really how Maryam had started to think about her.

She just felt– superior. Superior was the only way Maryam could describe it.

Sonya was a superior being. There was no way in which Maryam measured up to her–

At that moment she remembered the words that an Old Engineer told her and felt ashamed.

Maryam raised her tentacles and clapped them together against her own cheeks, sighing.

She had to fight the hierarchical thinking that had been beaten into her in Katarre.

And yet, faced with her feelings for Sonya, it was tough to understand any other way.

“Hopefully, I’ll live long enough to sort out all this mess.” Maryam said cheerfully.

Her tentacles fell like hair from the sides of her head, thin and slender, like an extra pair of arms ending in a soft paddle. She looked at the soft little suckers at the end of it. It was easy to think of herself as just a human being, but she was a Katarran Pelagis, born in the southern reaches of Katarre amid its chaotic, centuries-long civil war that had warped everything in that kingdom. She did not look like a stereotypical Katarran, due to her garb and demeanor. So the ship crew did not fear her and so far, had not avoided her like people did to stereotypical Katarran fighters.

She figured then that Marina’s analyst friend would not mind her either.

Putting Sonya out of her mind, for at least a few minutes, Maryam wandered to the far end of the habitation for the officers and found the open door that Marina had exited out from. Inside the room, a girl dressed from her neck to her ankles in only a bodystocking sat on the edge of a bed, wrapped in blankets. Dark-haired, with bright indigo eyes. Her aura was like a soft blue breeze, calm amid the storm. Her body was waifish, almost as ephemeral as that breeze.

Maryam felt a strong sense of weariness from her. Resignation, perhaps.

She poked her head inside the door. For a moment the girl was surprised but responded politely.

“Oh, hello. You’re that girl from Serrano. Maryam?”

“You got it! Did you know we’re under attack?”

“I figured that was the case. What else would prompt all of this activity?”

Elen the analyst raised a hand to gesture around her environment.

A few minutes ago, there would have been red alert lights going off.

“True! You really are an analyst huh?” Maryam said, without a hint of sarcasm.

“I’m nothing of the sort. I was just– I was useless. Marina just drags me around.”

“Did that stuffy G.I.A. agent say that to you? She’s a really demotivating person.”

“She didn’t have to say shit for me to feel like this. Did she send you here?”

“Hmm. You know, the more I think about it, the more I think God sent me.”

Elen looked at her with narrowing, skeptical eyes, like she was crazy.

Maryam got a very special impression from Elen’s aura.

She understood intuitively that Elen was a very special and gifted person.

And like Sonya, maybe someone dangerous– albeit, nowhere near as attractive.

“Pay me no mind!” Maryam said happily. “People tell I’m a little too emotional.”

For the moment, it would indeed be worth keeping an eye on this girl too.

Once she knew enough about her to confirm her suspicions, then she could explain it to Sonya.


Elena stared skeptically at the Pelagis girl trying to make conversation.

All around them, the ship was vibrating, gently, but more perceptibly than normal. Something was happening, Elena thought. Maybe some hatches were opening, or they were speeding up, or there was actual gunfire exchanged. She did not know. And she was not important enough to anyone here to be privy to that information.

She felt so weary. She had meant what she said to Marina in their shouting match before.

It would have been fantastic to be able to sleep until this was all over: one way or another.

She wondered dimly about Gertrude.

She missed Gertrude so much.

From the news Marina had been able to gather as they escaped into Serrano, she was aware that Gertrude was alive somewhere and attending to her duties. Elena had never really seen Gertrude’s ship, and had only a foggy understanding of the realities of warfare. In her mind, Gertrude could have been dead at any moment, because she was a soldier, and there was now, suddenly, a war. She had no understanding of the intensity of the Empire’s internal conflict. Still, if Gertrude was alive, was she looking for her, thinking about her? Had she given up?

She had thought she saw her in Serrano– but that was impossible.

Elena had been tired and far away on an elevator. That woman could have been anyone.

“Your aura is looking really gloomy.” Maryam said.

“My aura?” Elena asked. “What are you talking about?” She barely even wanted an answer.

Maryam giggled. “It’s like a halo around you, but it’s also like a gentle breeze. It smells earthy and flowery and musty. You have a soft heart.” Elena narrowed her eyes further while the Pelagis continued to talk, undeterred by the clear confusion in the princess’ face. “I haven’t really told anyone, but I’m actually a soothsayer! I can read your fortune!”

Elena groaned. “No thanks. If things are only getting worse, I’d much rather not know.”

“They might get better!” Maryam said. “As long as you’re alive, there’s always hope.”

Elena stood up, wrapped a blanket around herself and walked out into the hall, sighing.

She had seen the hall had monitors showing status reports. She wanted to examine one.

Maryam followed along sticking close to her, but Elena paid her no mind.

Outside her room there was indeed a display that had a fleet diagram along with several basic safety warnings.

So, they were indeed being attacked. By whom? Elena squinted her eyes, trying to read the tiny text on the algorithmic diagrams. There were all kinds of things scrolling by, and she reached up to touch the screen and freeze the picture. Looking closely, she saw it: Inquisition Flagship “Iron Lady” on one of the ships in the diagram. An Irmingard class?

Her eyes started drawing wide as she came to understand.

Her lips trembled; her grip closed tight around the blanket held shut against her chest.

Wasn’t that ship– hadn’t she heard that name– her mind was spinning, turning, racing.            

“Gertrude.” She mumbled to herself, eyes wide and weeping. “No– oh please no. Please.”

Before her mind was finished processing the events, she took off running.

Maryam shouted after her, but Elena was no longer thinking.

Weeping profusely, her wide open eyes burning as the cold, sterile air of the Brigand’s halls swept over a gaze she could not close. Staring as if through the steel, at the bullets and missiles she could only imagine being exchanged–

No, no, no, no, no! Gertrude– they were going to kill her!


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.2]

This chapter contains mild sexual content.

“Semyon!”

Fatima’s voice sounded across the ship, in every hall and every room.

Everywhere it was heard, the crew was unprepared to respond to it.

Murati in particular had Karuniya’s legs wrapped around her waist, her lips giving deep, sucking kisses on her neck, when the alarm sounded. Murati had just barely thrust inside Karuniya when the pair of them were so suddenly startled by the flashing lights and the voice. Each of them wanted to jump a different direction and they fell off the bed together, hitting the cold ground. All around them the dark room was tinged red by the alert lights.

“What the hell?” Murati cried out. Karuniya barely clung to her, breathing heavily, still dazed with passion.

Code “Semyon” meant an all-hands on deck combat alert.

“Solceanos defend!” Murati shouted, uncharacteristically. “We’re under attack!”

Karuniya’s eyes drew wide open for the first time since they hit the bed.

Upon realizing the gravity of the situation Murati and Karuniya scrambled in opposite directions for clothes.

There was no time — they had to react immediately. Murati had hardly buttoned up the sleeveless TBT shirt and put on a pair of pants when she ran out of the room, sans jacket, hat, a tie, her shoes or even underwear. She was still struggling with the buttons as she went, but the urgency of the situation did not allow her to tarry any longer.

“Good luck!” Karuniya shouted after her.

“I love you!” Murati shouted back.

She ran as fast she could, cutting through the commotion in the halls to reach the ship’s Bridge.

There Murati found a bedraggled group of officers in varying stages of undress getting to their stations.

A group of young gas gunners with bleary expressions and half buttoned shirts ran past everyone down to the bottom of the bridge to access their weapons. Semyonova wandered in wearing a bathrobe over a bodysuit. There were several officers that were wearing camisoles or tanktops, workout pants, or simply underwear. Fatima Al-Suhar at the sonar station seemed to be the most aware of the group, along with a sick looking Alexandra and a jittery Fernanda: this trio was also perhaps the most fully dressed of the officer cadre, since they were assigned the night shift.

The Captain had just taken her seat, along with the Commissar beside her.

“We absolutely have to develop more readiness than this.” Aaliyah grumbled.

She was barefoot and had a long coat fully closed over whatever she was wearing under — if anything.

Ulyana was still fiddling with the buttons of her shirt even as she took her place in the Captain’s chair. With clear consternation in her face and in clear view of everyone, she did her buttons one by one over what was clearly a quite risque semi-translucent lace-trim black bra. She had the time to put on the uniform skirt, but no leggings.

“I guess we should all sleep with our clothes on from now.” Ulyana grumbled.

“Why do you sleep with all your clothes off?” Aaliyah whispered to her.

Murati clearly heard them, standing next to the command station, and cleared her throat audibly.

This noise sent Aaliyah’s tail up into the air. “Captain on bridge! Let’s get organized!”

For a bunch of half-asleep, half-naked people, the bridge crew responded to the alarm in a few minutes total. This was a showing that could have gone much worse. At least they were now alert. Fatima looked like the wait had been nailbiting for her. She was catching her breath when she was asked to report. With a sweep of her fingers, she pushed the various findings from her Sonar display over to the main screen for everyone to examine more closely.

“I sounded the alarm after identifying distant mechanical noises over the sonar as a fleet of Imperial navy vessels. In all the fleet has eight vessels: four cutters, two frigates mainly acting as Diver tenders, a destroyer covering the flagship, and an Irmingard class dreadnought. All of the models save for the flagship are older designs. From the knocking sounds of their propulsion they are also in relatively bad shape. This fleet has been approaching at combat speed.”

For a moment, everyone hearing Fatima’s report froze up. Alex briefly and audibly hyperventilated.

Fatima looked like she wanted to hide behind the divider to the gas gunner’s stations.

Everyone’s bleary, terrified attention was on her and she was withering under their gazes.

“Are you absolutely sure this fleet is headed toward us? It could be a coincidence, right?”

The Captain was the first to break the silence. Fatima shook her head, her ears drooping.

“All evidence points to them matching our bearing from a long distance.” Fatima said.

“Captain, should we proceed as though this is a combat situation?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana put her hands on the armrests of her chair and took a deep breath.

“Yes, I trust Fatima’s instincts completely. If she says we’re being chased, then we are. What I don’t understand is what would compel a whole fleet of Imperials to suddenly tail us? Including that Irmingard class from Serrano?”

Murati felt a sudden weight in her stomach. Listening silently and wracked with guilt.

Had her tarrying in Serrano led to this? Had she doomed the mission and all her crew?

“It can’t have been anything we did. None of our actions in Serrano could have raised suspicion.” Aaliyah said. “Perhaps order has collapsed; these ships may have formed a fleet to turn to banditry due to the absence of a strong central Imperial authority after the Emperor’s death.”

“That makes a really dark kind of sense. God damn it.” Ulyana said.

That settled the issue of culpability immediately.

Murati’s panic simmered down to a small guilt and shame over her own reaction.

The Captain and Commissar continued to deliberate for a few moments.

“Maybe we can bribe them to go away then. But maybe 3 million marks won’t be enough.”

“Right now the overarching question is: do we run, or confront them?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana grunted with consternation and turned her head to the weapons officers.

“Gunnery, report! Fernanda, how’s the main gun? What’s the ETA on weapons range?”

Fernanda shook her head.

“Our primary armament is woefully ill-positioned to forfend attack from an enemy pursuer. We will have at our disposal only three 76 mm guns on the aft mounts if our positional relationships remain unchanged.”

“Of course, the conning tower is in the way.” Ulyana lifted her hand over face. She was clearly having difficulties. “But if we turn to commit to a fight, we may not be able to turn again and run. Helmsman, if we max out the engines now, can we get away from that enemy fleet?” By this point everyone had taken to their stations properly, so Helmsman Kamarik was taking the wheel of the Brigand as he was addressed, and Zachikova and Semyonova were also on station.

“My girl can outrun the trash, but not that Irmingard, at least not for long.” Kamarik said. “Newer dreadnoughts have bigger reactors, more efficient jets, and better distribution of mass. We can sprint away for a moment, but she’ll catch us in the long run; unless we’ve made any progress on those extra thrusters. Maybe that’ll give us enough of an edge.”

“Zachikova?” Ulyana turned to the inexpressive electronic warfare officer for comment.

“I’ve got some test software ready in my station. We can certainly try it.” Zachikova replied.

“We still have to do something on our end to create an opening to escape. Otherwise they will just shoot us with the dreadnought’s main gun, and we’ll be sitting ducks, if we even survive the attack.” Aaliyah said.

“Unfortunately, I’m inclined to agree with you. We’ll have to assume we’re trapped for now.” Ulyana said. “At the moment, running is out of the question. Even if it becomes possible later, those guns remain a problem–”

While the Captain and Commissar deliberated, Murati stood in silence next to them, thinking about the tenor of their discussion as the Irmingard loomed distantly. Her mind was clouded. A mixture of fear, anxiety, and the frustrating need to act in the grip of both kept her cowed, but there were seeds of an idea, born of that frustration. Every part of her being was screaming at her that this was not right, and something was missing. She kept asking herself what the Captain and Commissar assumed about their situation. Why were they talking like this?

“Commissar, if they go all out, do you think the armor will hold?”

“If they hit us in the rear, we’ll sink, full stop. Not even worth thinking about further.”

They were wrong.

They were both wrong about the scenario!

Murati thrust her hand up into the air and closed her eyes.

In that instant, everyone who had been looking the Captain’s way turned their eyes on her.

She felt like the entire crew was staring at her at that moment.

Ulyana and Aaliyah noticed quite quickly.

“Got any ideas, First Officer?” Aaliyah asked.

“Yes, I believe I do. I think we’re looking at this the wrong way.”

Murati lowered her hand slowly. She was a bit embarrassed and couldn’t hide her troubled expression.

“You have the floor then.” Ulyana said. “Try to make it quick though.” She winked.

“Right.” Murati took in a breath and centered herself. She remembered her speeches to the peer councils, where she petitioned time and again for a ship. Those speeches that Karuniya admired so much. “At the moment, it is not possible that the Irmingard class sees us as a military vessel. The Brigand was classed by the Serrano tower as a cargo ship. Our main guns are hidden, and we have never moved at combat speed since we left Serrano. We have an advantage there; we don’t know the Irmingard’s intentions, but they on the other hand are unaware of our capabilities.”

In a battle, initiative was important, but initiative was enabled by information.

Maybe an enemy with perfect information could have taken the initiative against them.

Murati believed the Commissar and Captain to be overestimating the enemy’s information.

Or perhaps, they simply filled themselves with anxiety without thinking realistically.

“You’re right! That’s a sharp point.” Ulyana said. “They wouldn’t expect a Diver attack! Hell, they wouldn’t expect an attack of any kind right now. We could do some damage with that. Maybe enough to get away from them.”

“If we can surprise them, maybe.” Aaliyah said. “That said even if we catch them off-guard, we can’t withstand a direct hit from the Irmingard’s main gun to our rear. So trying to lure them into a trap might still be a moot point if we have no defenses against their counterattack. We could just be dooming our diver squadron to be captured for nothing.”

“I don’t think the Irmingard will shoot us.” Murati said. While her superior officers watched, she started to talk, uninterrupted, disgorging the contents of her mind. “Their objective just can’t be to destroy us. What does that profit them? It makes no sense! You said it to me yourself, Captain. In the Empire, it’s all about the money. We can’t know whether they’re bandits or not, but I think you’re right that they want something from us, that they stand to gain from this. Why randomly attack a cargo ship? Why sink it? It would cost them ammo, time, fuel rod erosion, parts wastage, especially with those old and janky ships. I think that Irmingard is calling the shots, and it rounded up this fleet to come after us. I believe they have an agenda that will prevent them from shooting. Violence at this scale is never random.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at Murati, who for a moment thought she must’ve said something wrong to get that kind of reaction. They then looked at one another, deep in thought. A few seconds of deadly silence lasted from when Murati stopped talking, to the Captain standing up from her chair. She seemed to have hatched some kind of plan right then.

“Murati, I’m betting it all on you, so don’t let me down.”

She spoke so that only Murati and Aaliyah could hear, and she winked at the two of them.

Then she turned to the bridge and began to give off orders, swinging her arm in front of her with a flourish, a determined smile on her face and a renewed vigor in her voice. “Al-Suhar, I will need up to the minute updates on the position of the enemy fleet! Keep an eye on them! Helmsman Kamarik, retain this speed for now but match the Irmingard’s once it comes within a 1 km range. Semyonova, send out a line buoy to trail behind the ship and when the time comes, demand to speak with the Irmingard’s commanding officer on video. Geninov and De La Rosa, prepare the weapons but you will only shoot with my explicit orders. Zachikova, have your software ready to go as quickly as humanly possible. And Nakara, get your squadron ready to deploy immediately, I want you out of the hangar the instant I command it. Get out and there and give that flagship hell! We’ll escape once you’ve bought us an opening.”

For a split second the bridge officers were in awe of this sudden display of authority.

Never before had their Captain Korabiskaya spoken so powerfully and decisively to them.

With that same vigor that she showed them, the officers began to respond in kind.

Even Aaliyah seemed taken aback with the Captain’s swift turn and remained silent.

Letting her assume command, unassisted, the only voice heard: a Commissar’s respect.

“We’re not fighting to score a kill here! Let’s make like the pistol shrimp: punch and run!”

Captain Korabiskaya sat back in her chair, pushed herself up against the seat and sighed.

All around Murati, the bridge came to life again. Every officer turned their backs and their gazes fell deep into their stations, working on their computers. When they communicated, they spoke from their stations with clarity rather than turning to face the Captain again. There was no complaining. Having received clear instructions from the Captain, they set about their tasks. It struck Murati that this is what every other bridge she’d been in was like — these folks could all be professional when the situation demanded. All of them had great achievements on their records.

They could rise to the occasion, even if they were eccentrics personally.

There was a reason they were all selected to be on this ship.

Maybe, they could pull this off if as long as it was this crew — and led by this woman.

“Captain Korabiskaya, ma’am,”

Murati stood in attention at Ulyana’s side and saluted.

“My squad will be ready. Have Semyonova let us know when to deploy.”

“Godspeed, Murati. I’ll do everything I can from here to give you a good distraction.”

Ulyana smiled at her, and Aaliyah saluted back at her with a small smile as well.

The Captain’s face was bright with hope as always, but also steeled with determination.

At her side, the Commissar sat with her eyes deeply focused, a rock of stability.

They had developed a silent trust. Everyone in this room was developing this trust too.

Murati had never seen them like this, and she felt conviction rising again in herself.

That deep, clear, commanding voice, the radiance in her eyes, the grace of her movements. Ulyana Korabiskaya truly was a seasoned ship’s Captain. She was everything Murati aspired to be. The feeling Murati had in her chest when she witnessed her taking command is what she always wanted to instill in others. That ability to dispel helplessness and move these disparate people toward a single justice. Spreading her wings to protect them, while inspiring them to fight at her side. Ever since Murati saw this same thing when she was a child in the care of Yervik Deshnov.

There was no room to falter when she was commanded by such a gallant Captain.

In fact, she felt ashamed that she ever had doubt in Captain Korabiskaya.

The Captain had been right. Murati was still not ready. She had a lot of work to do.

It wasn’t enough to just know how to fight. She had to learn to lead people too.

Nevertheless, as she left the bridge, her determination to achieve that seat burned brighter.


Since being detected, the Irmingard class and its escorts trailed the Brigand through open ocean for what felt like an eternity before coming into range of a trailing line communications buoy that Captain Korabiskaya had ordered deployed from the aft utility launcher. With about a kilometer separating the enemy fleet from the Brigand, and closing, it became increasingly clear to the Captain that the enemy had no intention of shooting first.

She could breathe just a bit easier.

Murati had been right. Ulyana should have thought of the bigger picture.

Anticipating her video call with the enemy, Ulyana took a moment to complete dressing herself, donning the teal TBT uniform half-jacket, and tying her blond hair up into a ponytail, as well as quickly redoing at least her lipstick. She had enough time to make herself professionally presentable, if not comely, before the situation accelerated once more.

Communications Officer Semyonova had hailed the enemy fleet through the comm buoy.

Minutes later, the bubbly blond had a dire expression as she turned to the Captain.

“Captain, we’ve received a response. The Irmingard class is identifying itself as the Iron Lady, an Inquisition flagship under the command of one Grand Inquisitor Gertrude Lichtenberg. She has acquiesced to speaking to us, but is it really okay for us to link up with her?” She asked.

It took all of Ulyana’s inner strength not to respond too drastically to that information.

She wanted to scream. An Inquisition ship could mean they messed up somewhere.

“I can’t think of a single justifiable reason they would be tailing us.” Aaliyah said.

Ulyana let out a quiet breath, thanking God for the good timing of her Commissar.

Aaliyah was right. Looking back on everything that happened in Serrano, nothing should have caught the attention of the authorities to such a drastic degree. It was not possible that the dock workers could have ratted them out, because Union intelligence money was part of their bread and butter smuggling gigs, and the Empire would have had them all shot, not made a better deal. Murati’s stubbornness with the homeless people would have never provoked this kind of response. Ulyana could only reasonably assume that this was a personal action for this Inquisitor.

Why their cargo ship specifically?

It was berthed nearest, perhaps, so the Inquisitor saw it and saw it being loaded with some goods, like Marina’s crated up Diver. So perhaps it made a juicy target in that way. The Brigand, as a cruiser-size hauler, was among the biggest ones that would have been at the port of Serrano. Or perhaps they were simply unlucky, and the Inquisitor had just set out the same way and found a target to slake her corrupt appetite for civilian money.

There had to be an explanation for everything. Ulyana had to get in this woman’s head.

“Commissar, I’m going to do my best to keep them occupied for a bit.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah understood. She took off her peaked cap, put it out of view, and stood away.

That way it would be only Ulyana and Lichtenberg talking, or so she hoped.

“Semyonova, open video communication. Zachikova, watch the network closely.”

Zachikova grinned. “Let them try anything. I’ll slap them so fast their heads will spin.”

Semyonova nodded her head solemnly. “I’m connecting us to the Iron Lady.”

Ulyana adjusted the arms on the sides of her chair to bring a monitor up in front of her face. This monitor and its attached camera would project her face and show that of her opponent. For a moment it showed nothing but diagnostics, until Semyonova swiped a video window from her station to Ulyana’s. That feed was murky at first, but when the connection went through, a woman appeared on the screen with a pristine silver wall behind her. There was a shield emblazoned on that wall that was visible in the feed, the surface of it bearing a symbol of a cross and dagger.

“Greetings, Captain. I am Gertrude Lichtenberg, a Grand Inquisitor of the Imbrian Empire. I take it that you are in command of the hauler registered in Serrano as ‘Private Company Asset TBT-009 Pandora’s Box’? Quite a grand name for a humble workhorse of a design if I may comment. So then, Pandora’s Box, who am I speaking to today?”

Though her face remained void of emotion, Ulyana kicked herself internally.

Why did she let Semyonova decide the ship’s name that they gave to the Serrano tower?

She should have known the flighty blond would pick something silly.

For a moment, Ulyana hesitated as to whether to give her name to the Inquisitor. Thinking about it briefly, however, she felt that Imperial intelligence wouldn’t have had information on individual soldiers. They were probably concerned with people more important than that. While Ulyana was known as a war hero to the Union Navy, she wasn’t a household name. There was no chance an Inquisition computer would identify her immediately.

“I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya.” She finally dared to say.

Gertrude Lichtenberg gave off a strong presence, even through the video. In Ulyana’s mind, it was not just the uniform either. Certainly, the cape, epaulettes and the tall hat helped; but it was the strong features of her face, like her sharp jawline, regal nose, piercing eyes, and olive skin that really gave her a degree of fierce handsomeness. She was the first Imperial officer Ulyana had talked to face to face. Her easy confidence and almost smiling demeanor directly traced to the incredible power she boasted. This woman commanded one of the most powerful ships on the planet.

“We’ve been tailing for a while, Captain Korabiskaya. You’ve clearly been aware of our presence but maintained speed all the same, and even matched us when we neared. You know we’re pursuing. While I appreciate being able to talk face to face, I would like to request that you slow down for an inspection. We could arrange to meet in the flesh.”

Ulyana gave a prearranged signal to the bridge crew, laying back on her seat.

Helmsman Kamarik began to slow down by miniscule amounts, fractions of a percent.

Semyonova, meanwhile, sent a text message down to the hangar. Ulyana took notice.

“We are slowing, Inquisitor. May I ask what your intentions are in this situation?”

“You say you’re slowing?”

“Indeed, I’ve already given the command.”

Lady Lichtenberg narrowed her eyes and grunted lightly.

“Don’t test me, Captain. I want you to actually slow your ship down, right now.”

“I’m afraid this old thing can’t just stop instantly without a turbine breaking.”

“That’s none of my concern. Slow down for detention and inspection this instant.”

No threats of shooting? Ulyana felt like any ordinary police would have drawn a weapon.

Especially an Inquisitor with the world’s biggest ship-mounted guns to potentially draw.

The Captain was starting to believe her counterpart truly didn’t have intention to shoot.

Ulyana continued. “Are we charged with any sort of wrongdoing? Are there routine cargo checks in place now? And here I thought Sverland would be a good place to do business in the current climate. Being frank, our reputation is at stake, so we can’t be delayed very long. In tough times like this, we need to prove our reliability.”

Something about what she said clearly struck a nerve with the Inquisitor.

Though she was not sure of which part, Ulyana could see she was getting under her skin.

Sounding as irritated as she looked, the Inquisitor responded, in an almost petulant voice.

“You’re quite mouthy for someone I’m a few minutes from detaining.”

“Aside from speed, tenacity and courage are what our customers expect from us.”

“Listen, mercenary, I’m neither fooled nor impressed with your little cover story. We all know what you mean by transport company. I have no idea what rotten deeds your crew have participated in, and I frankly don’t care. All I want is to inspect you, get your roster, and be on my way. If you’ve got nothing to hide from me in your cargo hold, then you’ve got nothing to fear. Slow down considerably, or we will be forced to slow you down by our own means.”

Mercenary? What did she mean by that? They were pretending to haul goods!

Was transport company really a euphemism in the Empire? And a euphemism for what?

Nevertheless, Ulyana was getting what she wanted. There was still no mention of the guns.

In any other situation, those guns would be all the leverage the Inquisitor would ever need.

Trusting in Murati’s assessment, she called Lichtenberg’s bluff and continued to push.

“Inquisitor, if you shoot us, it will jeopardize our valuable cargo, and nobody profits.”

At that moment, for the first time, Lichtenberg’s stone visage suddenly shattered.

Her eyes drew wide and for a moment, her breath seemed caught in her throat.

She was not quick to any issue any more threats. In fact, she was not speaking at all.

“I believe we can come to a suitable agreement.” Ulyana said, pushing her luck in the Inquisitor’s silence and the sudden moment of anxiety her opponent experienced. “We’re on a tight schedule, and our cargo is our life, but I’m able to part with a tidy sum of cash instead. Purses are probably getting a bit tight in the Inquisition right now, are they not? I’ll pay a nice fine so we can overlook all of this unpleasantness and go about our days.”

“You bastards; you fucking animals; you’ll desist at once. At once!”

That reaction was unexpected. Seeing the Inquisitor so filled with frustrated emotion.

Lady Lichtenberg suddenly started shouting. “Captain Korabiskaya there is no way for you to run from this. We will hunt you to the end of the Ocean. If you run from me I guarantee you that your life is over. My men will board your filthy little ship and slaughter every illiterate merc stupid enough to have taken your money to do this job. I’ll personally make you taste the floor of the coldest, darkest cell in the foulest corner of the Imbrium, where you’ll be interred in lightless stupor until your skin and hair fall off. Stop right now, or I will make you beg to be shot!”

Ulyana blinked with surprise. Never before had she been so verbally assaulted in her life.

However, the sheer brutality of that reaction belied the inexperience of its source.

Everything Murati suspected was confirmed.

Inquisitor Lichtenberg could not turn her ship’s mighty cannons on the Brigand.

Confident in herself, Ulyana mustered up a smile, despite the accelerated beating of her heart and the ringing of the Inquisitor’s furious voice still abusing her in her ears. And as the Captain’s pretty red lips crept up into that smile, the Inquisitor froze in mute fury once more, eyes slowly drawing farther as she failed to elicit her desired response.

“Inquisitor, kinky as it sounds, that’s just not my idea of a good time. Such handsomeness as you possess is wasted completely if you can’t read what your partner wants from you. I would not be surprised to find out you’ve been quite unlucky with love if this is how you flirt with a gorgeous older woman the first chance you get.”

Ulyana winked at her.

Lady Lichtenberg’s jaw visibly twitched in response.

Her lips started to mouth something, as if she were mumbling to herself.

Anyone else may have overlooked it.

For Ulyana, used to picking up girls in the loudest parties in the Union, it was clear.

You– You must– You must know about her. You must know who she is.

It was so strange and outlandish a thing that Ulyana second guessed herself if she saw it.

“Inquisitor, we’re detecting an approach!”

From outside the frame of the Inquisitor’s video feed, someone was getting her attention.

Somehow, despite everything stacked against her, Ulyana really had done her part.

“I’ll have to bid adieu, Inquisitor! Zachikova, deploy the acoustic jammer, now!”

“Wait! What! I’ll–!”

The Inquisitor’s furious gaze was cut off as Semyonova terminated her video feed.

Zachikova flipped an arming switch with a grin on her face. Fatima withdrew her earbuds.

On the main screen in front of everyone on the Bridge, the sonar picture of the enemy fleet, approaching past the kilometer range, suddenly blurred heavily as an absolutely hellish amount of multi-modal noise across a host of frequencies began to sound across their stretch of the Nectaris. One agarthic-powered munition fired from the utility launcher sailed between the fleets and began a massive attack on the acoustic equipment the ships and computers depended on. It was such a cacophony that the visual prediction grew muddy, the shapes of things deforming like clay as the source of the data the computers were using was completely distorted by the waveform pollution.

For a ship fighting underwater, this was akin to screaming at the top of your lungs to deafen an enemy.

Everyone for kilometers would have detected the noise.

However, as part of that gamble, their enemy would be completely blinded for a key instant.

It was all the cover that they could give their Divers as they approached the enemy.

In an age of advanced computing such as theirs, these diversions were short lived.

But every second counted in the informational space.

Once the jamming noise was ultimately attenuated out by the enemy’s electronic warfare officer less than a minute later, Zachikova shut down the munition on their end, and once again the main screen on the Brigand represented an accurate picture of what was happening around them. Six figures representing their Divers had been able to gain substantially on the enemy from the distraction, and the battle was about to be joined in earnest by all parties.

“Battle stations!” Ulyana cried out. “Get ready to support the Diver operations!”

Captain Korabiskaya led her bridge with the same crazed energy that led her to try to flirt with an Inquisitor. Everything they were doing was wholly improvisational, the enemy before them was qualitatively stronger in every way, and they had no way of knowing if they could even escape this engagement, much less throw off the Inquisition’s pursuit in the longer term. In truth, their mission could have been jeopardized forever at that exact moment, over before it began.

And yet, Ulyana’s heart was driven by this same insane hope that she had instilled in everyone else.

Murati Nakara had been right. Despite everything, they still had the smallest chance to succeed.

Now all she could do was to lead her precious crew and entrust Murati with the rest.

“Captain,”

As the battle was joined, and Ulyana sat back in her chair to breathe for just a moment before she had to start directing their fire and taking communications, Commissar Aaliyah resumed her seat beside her and gently whispered, in a way that would draw the Captain’s attention to her.

Across her lips, a fleeting little smile played that warmed the Captain’s heart.

“Unorthodox technique, but well played. You were excellent, Captain.” She said.

“At least I maintained emotional control. But the Inquisitor was a poor opponent for a woman who has sweet-talked her way into as many wild parties over the years, as I have.” Ulyana said nervously.

For once, Aaliyah’s ears perked up, and she laughed a little bit with the Captain.

For a brief second, the pair of them could take comfort, as if in the eye of a storm.

Despite everything against them, they created a small chance to win, and Ulyana could savor it.


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